Shared overnight care of infants after parental separation - An academic and social debate in stalemate
The controversy over this issue has a long history(1). The debate has escalated over the past decade with concerns over family law reforms, although there has been scant new evidence to be considered. Recently, media in the UK (Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent) and here in Australia (ABC, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald) have covered this topic. The media attention has been sparked by the controversial opinions of Penelope Leach – countered by Sheila Kitzinger and fathering advocacy groups. Journal publications addressing shared overnight care of young children (2-10) have been referred to in support of the case for and against shared care after separation.
It is generally agreed that the important issue here is what is best for the child – not parent rights (see my posts on the comparable issue of the increasing use of child care). The parenting role does not come with rights - it comes with responsibilities. The demand for parental responsibility is highest at a child’s time of greatest vulnerability - around birth and infancy. It is imperative that at this vulnerable time others uphold the rights of the infant.
One difficulty in this conversation is the translation of academic or scientific evidence into recommendations for policy or practice guidelines. This problem was made evident in the recent Think Tank of 32 family law experts convened by the AFCC (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts) - Closing the gap: research, policy, practice, and shared parenting.
What is most important?
The debate publicly highlights a few important issues:
An infant’s need for:
These issues are especially relevant for separating parents but also for all parents – considering the mobility of many families and work/career pressures for mothers and fathers. At the heart of the legal issue is how problematic it is when time spent with a child is considered a parental right or the child as property.
The dilemma when parents separate
Children of all ages benefit from stability in their family life and relationships, yet they also benefit from a close relationship with both parents. In the case of separated parenting, attempts to achieve one benefit can sometimes appear to be at the expense of the other.
This dilemma was highlighted in the editors response to comments on the Think Tank report(11). There was unanimous “preference for parents’ active role in planning for their children’s future lives in reconstituted families” (p. 208). However, it was also conceded that there was an unresolved tension in the discussions of the policies.
There is a juxtaposed need “…for providing children with stability and consistency, and the desire to encourage two-parent involvement. Substantial research bases exist for each of these propositions, but research has not yet been able to test which of these empirically demonstrated developmental and familial conditions should prevail if we are forced to choose between them.” (p. 210)
So there seems to be a stalemate, which is complicated by the interpretation of research findings.
The use of research evidence
The translation from evidence to practice is fraught with problems, including the following issues that have been evident in this debate:
There are also some problems with the use of attachment theory in this debate.
These misuses of research have been argued to contribute to conclusion that there is clear evidence against shared overnight care of infants – a stand generally adopted in the guidelines for parenting after separation by the APS and AAIMH.
The resolution of this dilemma of overnight care is most likely achieved with holding the tension between: Firstly, recognizing specific high-risk situations or conditions for infants, and secondly appreciating the benefits for infants of close relationship with multiple caregivers. We also need to keep in mind that separated parents are but one of many recently emerged forms of family structures, such as, fathers and/or mothers working long hours, infants in long day care and parents who work away (e.g. fly-in-fly-out). The best interests and rights of infants and children in all these situations are paramount and can depend on the parenting of both mothers and fathers. The ongoing struggle with these issues will hopefully result in guidelines and policies that will support children’s development and their future wellbeing.