by Robert Whiston FRSA 22nd June 2014
Only this week we have seen Penelope Leach, anxious to ensure her new book sells well, simplifying science for the sake of headlines and enhance her income. Leach rashly put her name to a claim that children aged under 5 could be mentally ‘damaged’ if they stayed overnight with their fathers. Within days she was having to rapidly backtrack  – as McIntosh has also been forced to do although at a lazier pace – but the initial damage has been done and the wrong impression only reinforced.
Blocking social reform is easy – simply invoke the ‘uniqueness’ of the child argument. We see it wheeled out every time a threat to the ‘status quo’ is perceived by the establishment.
In every sphere of the social sciences and civil law that so strongly influence domestic policy it is the hoary old chestnut that is supposed to lay a guilt trip on the modernisers. So let’s examine it.
At every level, moves to reform, or improve, or restructure, or even remotely transform any acknowledged broken system (child adoption, child custody, education, child abuse, child poverty, family rights, etc), are forever neutralised by this phoney neo-liberal concept of the ‘uniqueness’ of the child.
Double speak or double standards ?
For years fathers were told they could not have shared residence (as permitted by the 1989 Act), or “shared parenting” because it was not suitable for all children. The inevitable result was that no children were given shared or joint custody. This was justified by pretending that custody was awarded on a “case by case” basis, hinging on unique factors made available to the judge and bearing in mind at all times the very individual nature of each court case and, yes, you guessed it, the uniqueness of the child.
Completely overlooked, and very conveniently, was the preceding decade when ‘joint custody’, a forerunner of shared parenting was a common award in England.
The result after 1991 was a “one size fits” all custody awards of mother custody – some might call this a straight-jacketed approach to custody awards. Regardless of the term preferred the result was blatantly not an exercise in uniqueness for the child or an assessment of individual cases.
The systems defenders at the time (say, from 1971 to 2000) was that the sheer number of divorces and the numbers of children involved each year (over 100,000 children per annum), made individual assessments impossible. The only way to deal with such numbers was to seal a child’s fate by using a conveyer belt regime.
So, in England & Wales alone, over 4,300,000 children have, between 1971 and 2014, had their futures sealed in this most arbitrary of ways (100,000 x 43 years).
At the same time as cutting off any practical chance of making ‘contact’ work better by giving fathers more time with their children, official initiatives sought to give the opposite impression by ostensibly seeking to improve the broken system with projects such as “Making Contact Work” (circa 2002) which, surprise, surprise, utterly failed.
It, and other programmes, failed because civil servants didn’t really want reform – they would be voting to move out of their comfort zone – and the veto committees, in this case PSA-8, were skewed with feminists, ideologically opposed to greater father participation.
In the case of “Making Contact Work” – and for all the Consultation Papers and position papers produced, together with the heralded ‘new guidance’ being issued, not a thing has changed for the ordinary parent in the following 10 years.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s the perennial justification for no change in law, and for rebuffs even to procedural reform (at all levels) was that the wonders of English law meant that ‘each child was unique’ and therefore each case was judged on its individual merits and each case was unique to the needs of the child and could only be met on a case-by-case basis which would automatically preclude a generalised approach.
However, that did not stop academics, politicians and civil servants from agreeing that, as a generalisation, it was a good idea to have fathers participating in their young children’s lives. This elephant of a contradiction seems to have passed over their heads.
In the intervening years there have been a host of initiatives by minister and official statements by government to include fathers in a child’s life, from the awarding of joint parental responsibly to seeking to improve the number of fathers who co-sign a child’s birth certificate where the parents are not married.
However, as Prof. Warshak remarks: 
- ‘Our society maintains a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want Dads involved with their infants and toddlers – changing nappies, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, soothing in the middle of the night, cuddling in the morning. But when parents separate, some people mistakenly think that it is best for young children to spend every think that it is best for young children to spend every night in one home, usually with Mom, even when this means losing the care their father has been giving them.’
Becoming a “failed state”
We are by now all accustomed to the term ‘failed state’ to describe a nation where the consensus (internally or externally) is that it has lost control of events; has difficulty in engendering support from its citizens; but perhaps most significantly, its legitimacy has eroded to such an extent that its collective decision making authority is in jeopardy. 
It is a term that ought to be more widely applied to many Western democracies because despite opinion polls of 70% + in favour of shared parenting, governments still ignore the results (or are too frightened to act). As a consequence, increasing numbers of citizens are being alienated and no longer feel part of society.
Western ‘failed states’ also conveniently ignore the new social science research which would shape social policies in a new direction that would allow fathers’ greater participation the lives of their children. The result is a state where 50% of adults are increasingly becoming ‘disengaged’ from society and cynical of politics and of voting in elections. Politicians then express wonderment. Adults males who are not yet married can see the writing on the wall just as clearly as those adults males who are, or who have been, married.
If a country doesn’t know it’s actually a ‘failed state’ and its politicians and civil servants can’t see (or don’t want to see) that they have created a failed state then they cannot recognise its importance and cannot realise that by maintaining what they see as a “status quo” they are in fact turning back the clock.
If a country’s politicians don’t yet know they are presiding over a ‘failed state’ but a sizeable portion of the population does then the collapse will be that much more sudden and total, e.g. Iraq, June 2014.
Fig leaf or fatuous ?
Readers of a certain age might recall the Morton Report of 1956. This was an inquiry into divorce and lead to the Divorce Reform Act 1969. The two opposing sides were the Law Commission, which had produced “Field of Choice”, and a group formed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who published the alternative view “Putting Asunder.”
Law Commission Report No 196 dismissed as unworkable the church and Archbishop’s view that each divorce should be examined as to why it had failed and to see if it was saveable.  Such a ‘post mortem’ into every individual divorce (i.e. an “inquest”), would take far too long and clog up the courts. It would be much quicker and easier to set the criteria as being one of a claim by either one of the parties of an “irretrievable breakdown.”
Thus when it suited the judiciary – and the academics behind the move, e.g. Prof Brenda Hoggett, Ruth Deech – “uniqueness” was very soon jettisoned in order to reach the desired goal. This is another example of the ‘Ends justifying the means’ and of setting aside uniqueness when it became an inconvenient obstacle to personal ambition of allegedly the ‘liberalisation’ of divorce and family matters generally.
Children are more important – really ?
‘Lip service’ is paid by officialdom to the notion that children and their welfare are at the centre of our concerns. This is so false on some many levels.
If children are so much more important than what parents think or want, why don’t children get the choice of seeing their parent when they want to and for as long as they want to ? Instead this freedom is taken away from them – in their best interests, of course – and times and dates are set by people and persons unknown to them, i.e. judges and CAFCASS officers (who may have seen them for only 10 minutes – if at all – and for say 2 hours, respectively).
In no way can this be called an exercise in promoting ‘uniqueness’ for the child or an assessment of an individual case.
Obstacles produced by the state and its organs proliferate as state agencies and welfare benefits proliferate. Clumsily, accidentally and/or deliberately these all deprive the child of their uniqueness.
- All children are given the same Child Benefit – so no uniqueness there.
- All children qualify for school meals – so no uniqueness there.
- All children qualify for immunisation – so no uniqueness there.
- All children qualify for free state education – so no uniqueness there.
- All children qualify for dental check ups – so no uniqueness there.
- All mothers with children are entitled to government subsidies – so no uniqueness there.
The list could go on and on, and so one has to question the validity of the concept of ‘uniqueness’ for children.
The ‘de fault’ position
When what we do for children and how we treat them, in nine times out to ten cases, is to treat them equally and in the same way, then that becomes society’s de fault position. The only way of breaking away from that is to claim some sort of ‘exceptionalism’ or ‘uniqueness.’ 
Society’s approach, therefore, is invariably to treat children ‘en bloc’, i.e. as a united unit, as a whole, en mass and not to attempt individual solutions.
Teaching is a prime example of the hollowness of this concept. Were we to adopt the ‘each child is unique’ approach we would have to have one teacher for each child, and we would not be allowed to teach in classes of 30 or 40 children. Indeed, we would also find we could not teach them the same subject at the same time – and if we did (or dared to) it would have to be tailored for each child’s “unique needs.”
All mothers with children are entitled to government subsidies and often in the form of Child Support – but this money is not paid to the child but goes to government and therefore it is technically not financial support for the child.
Divorce and single-motherhood plunges the non-family unit into income poverty – according to the official line. But while acknowledging this sad fact, government takes no active measures to prevent either occurring. The financial impact on the economy can be partialy assessed by looking at Child Support payments that are made every year – it is £1 billion a year industry (£1,141million as of April 2010).  NB. Divorced and single-fathers who have the care of children are not similarly plunged into income poverty, government statistics reveal and yet no one asks why ?).
For while all mothers with children are entitled to government subsidies, i.e. state benefits, this is not true for fathers with children especially those with shared parenting orders. Fathers are not automatically entitled to state benefits. And if fathers are not entitled this can only mean that child poverty must, or should be, higher among those fathers. But is it ? And if its not, why the difference ? What are mothers spending the money on which they get but which fathers don’t ?
It doesn’t help that all governments have done nothing about implementing the Spawson Report. The head of the Child Benefit Policy section, Spawson, revealed in 1999 that the Dept of Work & Pension’s computer system (installed circa 1975) was the reason Child Benefit could not be paid to two parents when custody was “shared”, or claimed by two parents.
So ‘shared parenting’, legally possible in the UK since 1991, was defeated by an elderly computer which though it endured ‘upgrades’ was never programmed to share child benefit payments.
The argument premised on the assumption “that each court case is unique” (and therefore ultimately judges have to independently make individualistic decisions based on the evidence presented in court) is a fatuous one.
The argument that each case and each child is unique cannot be sustained. Do children in a classroom have one-2-one teaching or do they all share the same standard offered to other pupils in their class ? We all know the answer to that.
Similarly, the claim that “each family is unique” is also false. There is no reason to assume that this or another family is so unique that it shares virtually nothing in common with the thousands of families in these same situations.
When there is a sudden outbreak of a serious childhood disease, is each child treated in a unique way, or are they all given the same injection to protect them ?
Why do we do this ? We do it because we know that it is the best solution for the situation. It is the best outcome for the majority of children that is the determining factor. We do not argue that because it has an adverse reaction on, say, 2% of children we will not immunise the remaining 98% – yet this is in effect the argument used by those opposed to shared parenting – even when it is the best outcome for the majority of children.
The teaching and the medical profession both base all their decisions (efficacy, treatments, prescriptions, predictions etc.) on what’s best for children which is in turn based on what the data shows as what is best for the vast majority of children (in exams results), or for people in the clinical trials of new drugs.
Who but a dense ‘red neck’ – be he a judge or a Joe Blogs – would say, ” . . . . but I don’t want my doctor to treat me by relying on all the modern research at his disposal – no, I prefer he treats my case as if it was ‘unique’ and had never before been encountered.”
And, of course, the uniqueness argument has the bonus in that it serves to excuse all mistakes.
E N D
 “The inaccuracies peddled as respectable wisdom by parenting espert Penelope Leach do more harm than good” – Jack O’Sullivan, Guardian, 19 June 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/19/young-child-night-away-mother-parenting-guru-penelope-leach
 See “Nielsen and Warshak Respond to Penelope Leach”, June 22nd 2014 https://nationalparentsorganization.org/recent-articles?id=21778
 See (11), Inquest, Para 3.10 & 3.11, Law Comm No 196 ‘the grounds for divorce’ https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228985/0636.pdf
 For a more general interpretation of ‘exceptionalism’ see the historically recent creation of “American Exceptionalism” and its consequences http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism
 Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission, Child Support Agency National Statistics, March 2010, http://www.childmaintenance.org/en/pdf/qss/QSS%20March10.pdf