Shared Parenting: getting it right for our children

The Nuffield Foundation has just released a study, Caring for children after parental separation: would legislation for shared parenting time help children?, that states that shared parenting legislation is not in the best interests of children.  On the face of it, given the work that I do with families, I would tend to agree.  What worries me about this latest study however, is not so much the findings, but the intention of the researchers in undertaking the study.  Faced with two private members bills which call for a presumption of shared parenting in law, it would seem that the well known academics in the field of family separation, are getting themselves into a lather about whether such change may actually be brought about.

In my experience, those ten percent of families that end up in the family courts battling over their children are facing more complex problems than a presumption of shared care can remedy.  Many parents who find themselves in entrenched situations are often dealing with complexities left over from their relationship.  Some parents in this category have psychological issues, others have enough money to prolong the fight.  Others are coping with a set of dynamics that even the most skilled therapist can find challenging.  Whatever is going on in that group of high conflict families, you can be sure that it will take a whole lot more than a presumption of shared care to resolve it.

The proponents of a presumption of shared care, argue that with such a framework set out in law, parents will be forced to agree an arrangement for care of children that gives both parents high quality time with their children.  Unfortunately, in my experience it is unlikely that this would give children any better a relationship with both of their parents than they currently enjoy.  The key issue for all parents who separate is not, how much time can I have with my children, but how well can I resolve the outstanding issues from my relationship so that we can continue to parent effectively together.  Too many parents, faced with the hurt, pain and suffering of the end of an adult relationship, expect to agree parenting time without dealing with this pain.  Little wonder so many attempts to maintain co-operative relationships around parenting children fail so quickly.

The Nuffield report says that shared parenting works best when it is co-operative and flexible.  Understanding that isn’t exactly rocket science, but making that happen takes care, skill and an absolute commitment to helping parents to resolve their unfinished business in order to get to that point.  The Nuffield report also says that evidence from Australia shows that presumption of shared care prioritises father’s rights over the child’s needs and that it also means that mothers are less likely to disclose violence and abuse.  It is at this point that I really start to hear warning bells ringing.

The Australian project of presumption of shared care has its issues and some of these are around the way in which presumption is interpreted by parents.  The picture painted in the Nuffield report however, states that presumption has lead to the upholding of father’s rights over children’s needs and mothers being unable to disclose violence and abuse.  This is disingenuous to say the least and to my mind, illuminates the agenda behind the research itself.  It is not the case that all fathers in Australia uphold their rights over their children’s needs.  Just as it is not the case that all mothers are pressurised into silence around issues of violence and abuse.  It may be true in some cases, it is not true in all and it is mischievous to assert that presumption has lead to this.

The agenda behind the research seems to me to be the management and containment of the arguments around the needs of children to have strong relationships with both of their parents after separation, an argument which has grown more powerful over recent years.  I am not an advocate of presumption of shared care, those who know my work are aware of that.  I am however an advocate for the needs of children to have ongoing, meaningful relationships with both of their parents and their wider family and my view on how to achieve that is shaped by my understanding of the deeply gendered world in which we live and work.

The academics who are busy trying to resist the presumption of shared care, seem to me to be missing the point in a lot of what they say and do.  The idea that children do not need both parents is rarely argued nowadays, but the notion that mothers have the right to determine how the father of their children is involved in their lives after separation is barely beneath the surface of much of the arguments I read and hear.  In my view, this absolute identification of mothers as the primary or most important parent, is akin to telling women that they belong in the nursery, that their most important role in life is that of carer for children.  The notion that fathers can and should care for their children appears lost on them.  It is this lack of equalities based analysis that vexes me most when I read reports such as that released by the Nuffield Foundation.

Presumption or not, is not the question.  The real question that the UK has to get to grips with is the lack of support for parents as they go through separation, a lack which in my view is scandalous.  The Centre for Separated Families has been calling for services to support separating parents to work together for over a decade now, its doesn’t take an academic from Oxford University to tell us what is needed.

Until the services to support separating families are reconfigured around the needs of both parents, until we accept that children benefit from meaningful relationships with their mothers and fathers and until we end the ridiculous stereotyping of men and women in our family services, presuming shared care or not, will not change a thing.

Until then however, take whatever is said by academics with a very large pinch of salt.


  1. I agree and disagree with points in the above. The real academics conduct longitudinal research with wide and plentiful sample groups. They tend not to be funded by socio-legal entities with agendas. Proper research, wherever it is conducted, unequivocally supports, to a high degree of scientific proof, that children are best served by maintaining meaningful relationships with both parents after separation. Dr Bausermann et al 2009 states that children in shared care arrangements, defined as 35-65% contact to either parent, show no difference in achievement or adjustment levels than children in intact families. Dr Linda Niellson’s 2010 meta-analysis of anti-shared care research surgically discredits every pathetic argument put forward in over 100 studies.
    However, the ‘research’ that we hear about in family law circles is anything but. Belinda Fehlberg; Jennifer McIntosh. Writers who use anecdotal evidence, if you could even credit it that much, and misuses of language to parlay the idea that shared care is not in the interests of children. McIntosh only sees high conflict families at her surgeries so only reports on them. She wants to remove the shared care arrangements, but deliberately and conveniently overlooks that the damage is caused not by the shared care but the conflict. McIntosh has been discredited in Australia, even by judges, so why is her bilge being imported here? Fehlberg is the same.

    Australian statistics show that conflict tends to die down once shared care has been in place for some time. It works for the kids, further research shows that kids love shared care arrangements. Most conflict is over the kids, so a presumption of shared care actually strikes out some grounds for conflict. It just takes time for the parent who has lost the benefits of sole residence to come to terms with the arrangements. The only professionals who do not like shared care are those who scavenge off the conflict.

    There are of course fathers who should not benefit from the presumption. That’s why it is a rebuttable presumption. However, what is sickening is that there are no resources in place for assessing how good a father is. Great dads are refused contact whilst paedophiles get contact or even residence. But how big is the danger zone?

    Chisholm, a retired Australian judge, produced a report which suggests there is a 13% ‘grey area’. When pressed, he states this figure includes parents with alcohol, drug, psychological and other problems. Dads who live too far away and dads who do not want to know their children fall into this bracket too. And how much of the 13% do violent or risky fathers take up….? Answer = 1%

    So at least 87% are absolutely safe, only 12% need monitoring, and 1% are a no go area.

    The figures could only be compiled after a couple of years of the presumption being in place in Australia and penal action taken against any party to proceedings who tried to use false accusations to derail the presumption. The effect of the presumption was that 81% agreed shared care by consent in or out of mediation and 33% of court applications had shared care immediately ordered. That’s 87% overall.

    Only by preventing by punishment any wrongdoing by the use of criminal allegations to gain advantage in civil family courts can we hope to get the true picture. Once the true picture is clearer we can allocate services where needed. We can better pinpoint abuse. In WA, the authority has admitted that 80% of child abuse happens in the homes of single resident mothers, either with or without their knowledge. The perpetrators are the mothers and new partners with no biological connection to the children. Since the shared care presumption in 2006, the incidences of child abuse have halved. Therefore, previously, the children were being denied their greatest protection, that of biological fathers.

    The answer is to provide the legal presumption and work on the families where it does not work or cannot yet work. There will be some minor casualties but nothing like on the scale we have now. Therapists will work with those couples who for some deep underlying reason cannot rather than those who dont want to agree on things. We could save at least £750 million in perverse legal aid bills, plus the unmonitored private costs which ruin broken families at the very time they need to keep their money.

    The current family law system in the UK is cruel and dysfunctional. It benefits only those who profit from misery. Sadly, those people have insinuated themselves into the positions where policy is decided. They decide whose research will guide policy. They love Fehlberg and McIntosh but ignore the endless list of credible psychologists and social scientists. They ignore requests to prove that their decisions and policies are based on sound evidence. They say they support ongoing meaningful relationships etc but oppose shared parenting.

    They are a bunch of self centered, colluding individuals who make the system work well for themselves instead of working well for children.


  2. Thanks for this comprehensive response Stu, I have learned a lot from reading it. I agree with your analysis of how academics insinuate themselves into policy making decisions. There is much work to do going forward, on all fronts to change this ‘cruel and dysfunctional’ system.


    1. Spooky; I was looking for shared parenting information, fresh from a very positive mediation session I attended today and I chanced upon Mavis McClean and the Nuffield Foundation. I was horrified to see such august bodies/individuals publicly stating that (a presumption of) shared parenting would not work or at least, was questionable. I decided to write here asking if Karen or anybody was aware of this extremely flawed work to then see Kip’s video post, which I might add is an extremely well thought out, logical and well-reasoned argument that puts it all in perspective. Shall we put McClean, Nuffield and Gingerbread on the same Pile?


      1. Charlie, This is in response to your comment regarding my video. Can you show me any research, apart from the financed by the Nuffield Foundation, that says unequivocally ‘shared parenting legislation is not in the interests of children’? Kingsley Miller


  3. The current framework of sole physical custody in contested cases is associated with high rates of father (and sometimes mother) absence, increased inter-parental conflict, and a marked reduction in children’s standard of living.

    New research evidence makes clear that inter-parental conflict decreases within a shared parental
    responsibility custody arrangement, as neither parent is threatened by the loss of the children and parental identity.

    1. Sole maternal custody often leads to parental alienation and father absence,
    and father absence is associated with negative child outcomes. Eightyfive
    per cent of youth in prison are fatherless; 71 per cent of high school
    dropouts are fatherless; 90 per cent of runaway children are fatherless;
    and fatherless youth exhibit higher levels of depression and suicide,
    delinquency, promiscuity and teen pregnancy, behavioural problems
    and illicit and licit substance abuse (Statistics Canada, 2005; Crowder and
    Teachman, 2004; Ellis et al., 2003; Ringback Weitoft et al., 2003; Jeynes, 2001;
    Leonard et al., 2005; McCue Horwitz et al,, 2003; McMunn, 2001; Margolin
    and Craft, 1989; Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996; Vitz, 2000; Alexander,
    2003). These studies also found that fatherless youth are more likely to be
    victims of exploitation and abuse, as father absence through divorce is
    strongly associated with diminished self-concepts in children (Parish, 1987).

    2. Children of divorce want equal time with their parents and consider
    shared parenting to be in their best interests. Seventy per cent of
    children of divorce believe that equal amounts of time with each
    parent is the best living arrangement for children, and children
    who have had equal time arrangements have the best relations
    with each of their parents after divorce (Fabricius, 2003).

    3. A recent meta-analysis of the major North American studies comparing
    sole and joint physical custody arrangements has shown that children
    in joint custody arrangements fare significantly better on all adjustment
    measures than children who live in sole custody arrangements
    (Bauserman, 2002). Bauserman compared child adjustment in joint
    physical and joint legal custody settings with sole (maternal and paternal)
    custody settings, and also intact family settings, examined children’s
    general adjustment, family relationships, self-esteem, emotional and
    behavioral adjustment, divorce-specific adjustment, as well as the degree and nature of ongoing conflict between parents. On every measure
    of adjustment, children in joint physical custody arrangements were faring
    significantly better than children in sole custody arrangements: “Children
    in joint custody arrangements had fewer behavior and emotional
    problems, higher self-esteem, and better family relations and school
    performance than children in sole custody arrangements.” The positive
    outcomes of joint custody were also evident among high-conflict couples.

    4. Inter-parental conflict decreases over time in shared custody arrangements,
    and increases in sole custody arrangements. Inter-parental cooperation
    increases over time in shared custody arrangements, and decreases in sole
    custody arrangements. One of the key findings of the Bauserman metaanalysis
    was the unexpected pattern of decreasing parental conflict in
    joint custody families and the increase of conflict over time in sole custody
    families. The less a parent feels threatened by the loss of her or his child
    and the parental role, the less the likelihood of subsequent violence.

    5. Both U.S. and Canadian research indicates that mothers and fathers
    working outside the home now spend comparable amounts of
    time caring for their children. According to the most recent Health
    Canada research (Higgins and Duxbury, 2002), on average, each
    week mothers devote 11.1 hours to child care, fathers 10.5 hours.
    According to Statistics Canada (Marshall, 2006), men, although still
    less involved in primary child care, have significantly increased their
    participation in recent years. As the gender difference in time spent
    in child care has diminished, shared parenting after separation has
    emerged as the norm among parents who are not involved in a legal
    contest over the custody of their children (Statistics Canada, 2004).

    Edward Kruk, M.S.W., Ph.D.
    The University of British Columbia
    December, 2008


  4. StuG : so do i need to be monitored because i live 90 miles away from my children ?

    Karen I do not call high quality time with my children, such as this: every two weeks, 20 mins to speak to five childrenn, some times it overlaps to 30 minutes, thats 2/1/2 mins per child per week, Every two weeks i vist my childern in wolverhampton for 5 hours. Thats 2/1/2 hours per week. I get all the holidays but i have to pay out of £53 pw, So i pay for travel, food, heating, trips out . My ex wife is offer £5 per child per week while they stay with me. Then she comes and picks them up, She starting to pick them up because she wanted them back earlier than i would bring them, ie she wanted to shortten contact, like she did not last summer, where i had the children for 4 weeks, the year before it was 5 weeks, This year I got 100 for all 5 children off the ex wife, the year before it was £50. Thiis might should good, but she reduced or tried to reduce contributions and the year before i picked the kids up in wolverhampton and took them back, but because she wanted to lesson contact I saiid right you can come and pick them up. Its an endless battle to try to stop her chipping away at contact, Some times one of my children are not there in the house so i will speak to them on the phone for a month, its a nightmare


  5. Darren, don’t really understand your question. It’s quite clear that if you have the children for extended periods you need no monitoring. It’s a sad but common paradox that despite the holiday contact you only get 5 hours contact every two weeks.


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