How courts should use attachment theory

In a consensus statement supported by more than 50 experts from a wide range of countries, this paper from the journal Attachment & Human development provides a comprehensive account of how attachment theory has developed since it was started by John Bowlby and discusses how it should be used in court.

The consensus statement aims to counter misinformation and help steer family court applications of attachment theory in a supportive, evidence-based direction on matters related to child protection and contact/residence decisions.

It sets out three attachment principles: the child’s need for familiar, non-abusive caregivers; the value of continuity of good-enough care; and the benefits of networks of attachment relationships. It also discusses the suitability of assessments of attachment quality and caregiving behaviour to inform family court decision-making.

The “best-interest-of-the-child” standard is a key factor in child law, but it can be difficult for a court to assess what that actually means in particular cases. Various key misunderstandings of attachment theory are listed, including the assumption that one primary relationship with a parent is of special importance (an early Bowlby idea which he later rejected).  A related issue is the argument that overnight care with non-resident caregivers is inherently harmful for younger children and should be discouraged within custody arrangements, which was raised in one study which has since been criticised by other researchers.

Family courts have to make difficult and sometimes life-challenging decisions about children and their family arrangements.  This consensus statement provides useful guidance on the current understanding of attachment and how it can be used to help in court decision making.