Custody rules found to exacerbate child anxiety


IN A finding that challenges the Howard government’s changes to child custody laws, new research has found that children aged under 10 can be emotionally harmed by shared-parenting arrangements in many families.
Where parents cannot co-operate and remain hostile towards each other, shared-parenting arrangements can result in a higher-than-normal rate of clinical anxiety in the children, the research found.
The report follows changes to family law by the Howard government in 2006 in response to lobbying by fathers’ groups.
The changes emphasised the concept of equal shared parental responsibility, which is often misinterpreted as meaning equally shared time.
The report recommends that mediators and Family Court judges screen warring couples to ensure that their level of conflict does not make them unsuitable for shared care.
The report was written by Jennifer McIntosh, a child psychologist and associate professor of psychology at La Trobe University, and Richard Chisolm, a former judge of the Family Court.
It will be published next month in the journal Australian Family Lawyer.
Professor McIntosh told The Age that to be successful, shared parenting must involve parents living close to each other and getting along well enough to have a working arrangement.
They must each feel confident that the other is a competent parent, be financially comfortable, have family-friendly work practices and be committed to keeping the child out of their disagreements.
These conditions do not exist for many parents who have arrangements adjudicated by a court, Professor McIntosh said.
She found that litigating couples were more likely to substantially share children, even though 73% in one study reported “almost never” co-operating with each other, and 39% admitted “never” being able to protect their children from conflict.
“Shared care puts children more frequently in the pathway of animosity and acrimony between their parents, witnessing derogatory exchanges, for example,” she said. “The core issue is that shared care can inadvertently rob children of security in their relationships with both parents.
“Screening is essential. We should not allocate (shared) time as a means of appeasing angry parents.”
Professor McIntosh reported on two recent studies that tracked children’s wellbeing after a difficult divorce. One involved 181 children and the other 111 children. In the latter study, 28% of the children were clinically distressed four months after their parents’ court case ended.
Living in substantially shared care, being unhappy with those living arrangements, and having parents in high conflict were factors associated with poor mental health.
“One of the other realities of shared care is that it’s less stable,” she said.
Professor McIntosh said the concept of substantially shared time – five or more nights a fortnight with the “other” parent – is now being applied even to very young children, with 21% of shared-care children in one study aged less than four. Babies and toddlers are developmentally unsuited to shared care, her report argued.
She said the new law “tried to do good things. It tried to say that relationships with fathers are important, and they are. My data show that too. But, inadvertently, these changes seem to be creating new difficulties.”First published in The Age.