Monday, 8 October 2012

Policy makers, unreliable evidence, and the fatherless society

When The Custody Minefield first came into being, we'd often see CAFCASS Officers justify an anti-shared residence stance by citing what they called 'hard evidence' from 'expert research'.
The funny thing about expert research is that very few people ever bother to read the detail. An industry exists to produce research, but that industry is often led by self interest. Funded by the tax payer, either in the UK, or from European grants (so yes, the tax payer), sometimes I think the tax payer should see how its money is spent!
It confounds me that the research so often cited has pathetically small sample sizes (e.g. only a handful of participants are involved in the research studies) or has small sample sizes which are unrepresentative of society but relied upon by the third sector or Government.
Organisations which have a particular sociological ideology seize upon any research which supports their position, or that of their members. Too often, they use flawed research findings from negligible studies. The most fervent ideologists will take unreliable research findings and then become the loudest lobbyists in Parliament [the rest of us have day jobs].... and from there we see flawed Government policy.

...and we wonder why we have a fatherless society.
Two pieces of research helped to shape policy in the first decade of this new millennium.
The first was 'Children 5-16 Research Briefings. New Childhoods: children and co-parenting after divorce' (Professor Carol Smart and Dr Amanda Wade - Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood - University of Leeds.
The second was 'Drifting Towards Shared Residence' Professor Carol Smart, Dr Bren Neale and Dr Jennifer Flowerdew - Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood - University of Leeds - published in Vol 33 of Family Law Week Dec 2003).
Both pieces of research were widely quoted when policy decisions were made about post separation family policy. I doubt whether many who quoted them had actually read the detail of reports rather than the executive summaries. If they had, then the findings were deliberately misquoted to support gender biased social policy with no regard to child welfare.
Why were those studies insufficiently robust to be used as a basis for policy?
  • The original study referred to in the 2003 report was only based on a sample of 117 children.
  • The second study only took into account the views of 30 children and young adults who'd been subject to equal parenting time arrangements (not shared residence as the title suggests).
  • The authors used the terms 'shared parenting' for what would more commonly be referred to as the legal status of shared residence, and used the term shared residence in place of 'equal parenting time' e.g. a 50/50 division. Practitioners in law would realise that shared residence is a legal status, and has no defined link to an amount of parenting time. The terminology was confused, and did confuse.
  • The sample uses a narrow base of white, middle class children – not demographically representative.
  • The sample only looks at the experiences of children aged 11 and over.
  • With such a narrow sample being used, the report suggests that the problem for the children subject to equal parenting time wasn't the structure of contact so much as the quality of parenting and lack of flexibility provided by the parents.
  • The sample mainly focuses on teenagers, and no allowance appears to have been given to the fact that the parent/child boundaries can cause issues for any teenager - irrespective of whether or not the family is intact, and regardless of the contact arrangements if the child has parents with separate homes.
  • The report mainly focusses on the negative experiences of the children, while only briefly mentioning that children also experience positive outcomes from equal parenting time.
  • The researchers admit that their study 'was not designed to determine whether one kind of post-divorce residence arrangement was better than another'.
  • The researchers do not consider or discuss the negative aspects of alternative contact/residence scenarios, including the loss of a meaningful relationship with the non-resident parent, nor the harm caused through broken contact arrangements.
  • The researchers do not consider the harm caused by protracted and adversarial legal battles
 ...and we wonder why we have a fatherless society

The anti-shared parenting brigade now quote Australian studies when they want to discredit shared parenting. However, the research from Australia is not all negative, although where I've seen it used, there is a heavy focus on the negative points from the studies, and near blindness to the positive points. What's that old saying... lies and damned statistics? Statistics can always be found to support your position. What of those other countries, closer to home, which have a presumption of shared care. Sweden? Spain? Belgium? France? Denmark? Remember in 2007 the UK was found to have the unhappiest children in the developed world in United Nations research... where let's be honest, we have a presumption of single parenting/sole residence. The three countries with the happiest children have shared parenting as a default arrangement after divorce. They don't say that... do they, the critics of shared care... and nor was that mentioned at the conferences shared and chaired by Gingerbread and One Plus One.

In 2010 I was at Parliament talking about relocation and its impacts on children, and we brought along research findings from studies where the sample sizes ran into tens of thousands. Harder to dispute when there is a sample size of 40,000. There were 15 studies which we cited as confirming the importance of fathers in day-to-day childcare.
Before we spoke, others in the meeting called for more research, but they were from organisations which were also looking for research grants and more funding. I remember the look of shock when I said that no more research was needed, and ran through the studies we'd brought with us... we had sufficient research to justify a change in the law, and now! For those researchers, you could see the look of shock... and for one, an 'Oh my god, who invited him' moment which someone actually recorded on camera (but I'm too nice to publish).

...and we wonder why we have a fatherless society 
Today I saw something that reminded me of those early days of The Custody Minefield, that Carol Smart research and how it formed policy, and that  seminar at Westminster. Remember that Carol Smart herself said that the findings in her report were not sufficiently robust to support policy... but the policy makers cherry picked the findings to support their own ideology (which was anti-shared parenting).
Today I saw the advert to the left. 'The ESRC-funded seminar will provide an opportunity for academics, practitioners and policy makers to hear about and debate new research findings on fathers in complex, contested and vulnerable family settings.'
On the East Anglia University Website, this researcher lists two studies. This 'ESRC Funded Post-Doctoral Fellowship: Utilising father's narratives to inform interventions for supporting separated parents' and their previous 'Doctoral Research 2010: 'Working At It': context, relationality and moral reasoning in narratives of fathering beyond couplehood'

Looking at that first piece of research so proudly listed on the University of East Anglia website...

How many in the sample size... Let us guess. 10,000? Too high! 1,000? You're freezing cold! Well 100 then? No... lower than 100 (oh that Brucey moment)! Yes, lower than 100. Lower than 50? Well... erm... 23... and then the wording in the findings 'A thematic and ‘iterative’ analysis of all the interviews was made, using a framework based on principles from feminist ethics of care and the ‘Listening guide’' (as Charlie Brown would say... 'Oh good grief).

The design seems a little confused...
The study involved in depth interviews with 23 previously resident fathers with at least one biological child where the relationship with the mother had ended and who had been divorced or separated for at least one year. The volunteer sample of fathers, lived in a comparatively rural area of East Anglia, was predominantly of White British ethnicity and all presented as heterosexual at the time of interview. The sample varied in terms of age, employment, type of contact arrangements and reported quality of co-parental relationship with mothers.
One assumes these fathers never had residence (a legal status conferred by court order), but co-habited or were married to the mother. One assumes that none of these fathers had residence after separation? One wonders whether any shared residence? How representative was the sample study in terms of post separation outcomes? How do those outcomes compare with intact families.. where the level of father and mother involvement in day-to-day care is now near enough equal?

Question, question, questions.... Can we learn anything from Dr Philip's findings?
Taking a feminist perspective, the research presents post-couple fathering as a complex moral and relational process shaped deeply, though not straightforwardly, by gendered patterns of caring for children.
Scratching my head, I find myself asking why the research needed to be conducted from a feminist perspective? Would that lend objectivity to the study? Would it make the study more, or less scientific? Answers on a post card please. Did Dr Philip also conduct this new research from a feminist perspective, into what fathers need, post separation? Would research into such matters be better conducted by scientists rather than feminists?

For this latest research, Dr Philip acknowledges the Coalition's commitment to facilitate shared parenting and relationship support and that enriching the evidence base for such interventions is crucial and there is a need for data on fathers’ perspectives (deep breath... long sentence... her words, not mine).

So who does she ask? Who informs her? Those 23 rural mostly white dads from East Anglia? Or the local and national organisations, practitioners and user groups which form part of her review...

Would that be Families Need Fathers? No. Other fathers' groups? Not that we can see. Well who on earth is it then? Ahha... One Plus One, Relate, the National Association of Child Contact Centres, CAFCASS, Norfolk Family Mediation Service, Mancroft Advisory Project in Norwich, Norfolk and Norwich Families House.
The Mancroft Project... a men's group, surely? Erm... no... they're a youth project?
One Plus One... now what do we know about One Plus One and their views on Government Policy and shared parenting... Looking at the OnePlusOne website, you go through to Parenting Connections where you find their online support service. There, they cite shared parenting as being:
"Shared parenting" in legal terms usually means there will be a ‘presumption’ that when parents separate children should spend an equal or nearly equal amount of time with both parents … a 50-50 split. This seems straightforward enough; of course a child needs an on-going relationship with both parents and time is clearly a factor in maintaining close bonds. But where this area of the law has become difficult is because some parents hold the idea of this only being possible if the child spends a 50-50 amount of time with each parent.
Little wonder that some parents hold the idea that shared parenting involves a 50/50 split of time when you yourselves tell them that in the earlier sentence!

Like Carol Smart back in the early millennium, Parenting Connection/OnePlusOne are ignorant of the correct meaning of the terms they use. Shared Parenting does not mean a 50/50 split of time. The Government have stated this, as have we and other organisations and groups.

Let us also remind ourselves that a presumption is something not set in stone, but a starting point which can be challenged in an individual case, where evidence supports such a challenge!

Other comments on the One Plus One web site are also misleading:
UK researchers and legal experts all agree that children will benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation where this is safe. But that changing the law is not the way to achieve this.

But that changing the law is not the way to achieve this... is that your view... or that of ALL UK researchers and legal experts? It's a little hard to tell from the way its been phrased. They've all agreed? Really? Can we have a list please? I know some legal practitioners, and senior ones, who strongly support changes to the law!

Put very nicely, One Plus One appear to have a bias, or they need to correct their web site (they should really, as such misleading information reflects badly upon their organisation). If they are to be included in research studies, perhaps there should be some balance by including organisations which support shared parenting (and they exist a plenty!).

So... who provides the fatherhood narratives for this new research? One can only hope that POLICY would be informed by more than 23 mostly white dads from rural Norfolk who formed the sample group in the first research report. 100 dads? 1,000? 10,000? Let's remember that in London, over a half of all children born in 2010 were born to foreign born mothers. Nationally it's 25%. Let us hope Dr Philip's sampling methods account for this, and for the range of outcomes in the family courts (which includes shared residence... described as common place by the honourable Sir Nicholas Mostyn). Surely, given the Government's commitment to shared parenting, Dr Philip's interviewees would best be fathers with shared residence, and those with shared care arrangements (if the research is to be forward looking and policy shaping, rather than providing a view of parentectomy in the shires).

Should the Fatherhood Institute be inviting policy makers to come and listen to the findings, given the question marks around the content? Maybe... it all depends upon the detail of the report, which in fairness, we haven't yet seen. That said, our concerns have a measure of justification and we've explained why.

If we want to understand why we have a fatherless society, maybe more should query who is doing our policy making, who is doing the research, and who is representing fathers. Maybe future funding should depend on the objectivity and robustness of research?

Bob Geldof wrote the following in the foreword to our briefing report back in 2009, commenting on the social policy circus and why we should be scandalised:
A farrago of cod professionalism and faux concern largely predicated on nonsensical social guff, mumbo-jumbo and psycho-babble. Dangling at the other end of this are the lives of thousands of British children and their families. 

Let us hope that Dr Philip's report is more than nonsensical social guff, mumbo-jumbo and psycho-babble. Let us hope that policy readers don't just rely upon the executive summary, and that they read the detail before relying upon the findings.

Should we be so critical and demanding? If you need us to answer that, we can provide research which unequivocally supports that we should... and on child welfare grounds!

 ...and we wonder why...