Science 101 for family court judges

11 January 2020: In a ground-breaking, scientific paper, 70 scientists from around the globe have come together to try to tell family court judges what they really need to know about kids.

They have provided scientific “consensus” – the nearest science comes to a definitive statement – about what’s best for children when families break up, or when care arrangements for children are being decided.

They highlight how some fringe, or poor, scientific studies continue to be given undue weight by some family courts – unfamiliar, as these courts usually are, with the scientific method and the process of developing, and constantly testing, consensus in science.

Three key rules

Most importantly, they advance three fundamental principles that court practitioners should use regarding attachment in individual cases:

(a) children’s need for familiar, non-abusive caregivers;

(b) the value of continuity of good-enough care for children; and

(c) the benefits to children of networks of attachment relationships.

In other words, it’s very important for children to have ongoing care from parents and other caregivers they know (imperfect or ‘good-enough’, as they may be – provided they’re not actually abusive).

The enduring myth of there being such a thing as “a primary parent” – which many family courts routinely use and rely upon to this day – is also challenged; children benefit greatly from having relationships with (or attachment to) a wide variety and number of people.

Attachment theory

The work is based on a long history of attachment theory and research, dating back to the renowned research of John Bowlby (e.g. Bowlby et al., 1952) who began documenting the adverse, long-term affects of separating children from caregivers in hospitals.

(More recently, in 1995, the placing of a baby next to its sick twin after they’d been placed in separate hospital incubators, added additional insight to the importance of intimate contact after birth and had further impact on hospital procedures.)

“Attachment theory and research has … become very influential and [is] currently put into practice in many applied settings, including family court assessment and decision-making (Alexius & Hollander, 2014; Crittenden & Baim, 2017). However, misinformation about attachment theory and research is widespread and sometimes results in misapplications with potentially serious negative consequences (for discussions, see Granqvist et al., 2017; Kelly & Lamb, 2000; Nielsen, 2014).”

The conclusion? If family courts are serious about “the best interests of the child”, it’s about time that family court judges got up-to-date with the science!

Science and medicine, after all, are far better tools than law for determining what’s best for the long-term health and wellbeing of our kids.

A further, useful summary and review of this significant paper can be found here as part of the Child and Family Blog, which covers many aspects of divorce and separation: