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I’m so mean I make medicine sick


Ward and Brown’s response to Wastell and White; and Neuroscience in the family justice system begins to be as much about the smack-talk as it does about the experiments and data.


I’ve written before about the scientific research presented to the judiciary by Ward and Brown, and then by the response to that from Wastell and White which basically questioned the conclusions drawn in the Ward and Brown research.

 I also more recently did a piece suggesting that if decisions in family courts are to be influenced by developments and research in neuroscience, it might be helpful to clear up this debate and have an idea as to which camp is right or whether the state of the science is just not sufficiently there yet to say definitively.  {If you want to read any of those, pop “neuroscience” into the search box to your left}


I will preface all of this by saying that I don’t have a neuroscience background and my only interest is in ensuring that any science informing court decisions is fair; I don’t have a boxer in this fight and am not taking sides.  I am instead just a young person by the school gates, watching two others go at it and shouting “Scrap Scrap, Scrap! ” rather than pledging support for one side or another.


What I have now seen is Ward and Brown’s response, which will be published in the September issue of Family Law.  That of course, is copyrighted to Jordans, so I can’t post it here, and though a summary of the article is up online, the full copy is not available online for me to link to.

 If you can get hold of it, however, it is worth a read.

 It would be fair to say that Ward and Brown come out swinging, and basically say that their original research is valid and robust and that Wastell and White are lone voices saying the reverse. (They say that they reviewed 482 pieces of research or papers, and say that the only controversy in this field is that authored by Wastell and White).

 I am going to repeat what Ward and Brown say about what their original research says, and what it does not say. I hope that this counts as fair use, and is not intended to impinge on Jordan’s copyright of it (in fact, I hope it whets the reader’s appetite for reading the full piece)

Given that we know that the judiciary have all had Ward and Brown’s paper, I think it is very important that we see what Ward and Brown themselves say about the conclusions, and the possible mischaracterisation of the conclusions.




The research summarised in Brown and Ward shows that the first 3 years are an important phase in early childhood, that neurobiological development is shaped by the environment both before and after birth and that, because infants are so dependent on their caregivers for survival, a key feature of the environment is the attachment relationship. It also shows how extreme abuse and neglect in these early years may shape the way in which children develop in all areas: physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. Children who experience extreme abuse and neglect in these years are more likely to fall behind their peers and develop a wide range of problems in later life. In addition, the longer the maltreatment continues the more likely it is to have a negative impact on development and the more difficult will it be to overcome the consequences.


The report does not say that these developments are inevitable or irreversible. It does not say that all children who experience poor parenting or grow up in poverty will develop problems. It does not say that children whose development is compromised by abuse and neglect cannot overcome the consequences. It does not say that parents with problems such as substance misuse, domestic violence and poor mental health cannot change. It certainly does not make the claim that courts should remove children from ‘a home environment where their brains are “shrunken” as a result of abuse and/or neglect’ (D Wastell, S White and A Lorek, ‘The child’s timeframe – a neuroscientific perspective’ (unpublished, 2013), at p 45). What the report does suggest is that if these children are to remain at home, proactive engagement with social workers and other professionals needs to begin early.



[When I look at those assertions, they seem fairly uncontroversial and probably right, and frankly almost to the point of being so obvious/bland that  they tell me nothing new or useful at all. There you go, something for both camps to like/hate in my summary there.  On the formulation above, it is hard for me to imagine a lawyer for either the LA or the parents urging the Court to make use of the research in the decision-making process ]


They robustly defend themselves from the critiques made by Wastell and White, and whilst criticising Wastell and White for intemperate language they don’t seem to shy away from it themselves. The passages in particular about Wastell and White’s criticisms of Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child, might be considered pretty bullish. To describe this site as ‘selective’, ‘campaigning’, ‘a priori’ and ‘lurid’ is a travesty; no doubt Harvard will be dealing appropriately with these allegations



In effect, by the end of this response, what the non-neuroscientist takes away from it is that we have two camps   – both of whom effectively accuse the other of coming to the table with a political agenda and misrepresenting the science in order to further that agenda.  The agenda being either the furthering of more and faster adoptions, or an anti-adoption campaign. (Brown and Ward do point out in their response that they have spoken out about the rush for more and faster adoptions)

Perhaps this only looks like a scientific dust-up from the outside, and the real differences between the camps are very important to the scientists, but relatively minor for family lawyers and judges – or perhaps the intensity of the debate is illustrative of those differences being very large and important. 

[It seemed to me previously that the fundamental dispute was about plasticity and the difficulty of RECOVERING from neglectful experiences that occurred before the age of 3 – I don’t know whether that dispute has dissipated given what Brown and Ward say that the research does NOT say.  ]

We family lawyers are simple folks, but we do have a recipe for dealing with experts who have differing opinions. Firstly, we ask them to meet up, with an agenda and some agreed questions, to see if they can narrow any differences and identify where there is genuine dispute.

 And secondly, if that does not result in a consensus, we have the evidence tested before someone independent, like a Judge.

 Some Judges even adopt a novel Australian approach called “hot-tubbing” where the experts effectively get into the witness box at the same time (which can be a tight squeeze)  and give their evidence concurrently, as more of a panel discussion than sequentially.  Perhaps the time has come for a neuroscience hot-tub time machine?


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

2 responses

  1. There does seem to be an element of over-simplification of science in some recent training (have you not come across this?) which has led to concerns expressed by others, not just Wastell and White. Next week (25th) there is a relevant cross-disciplinary conference in London ‘Is it all in the brain?’ which is looking at the following questions –
    • How deterministic is the retardation of brain development on children born into severely adverse emotional and social environments?
    • Can changes in how the child is cared for reverse early organic damage?
    • What is the role of resilience and individual differences between children?
    • How should some of these issues be weighed in evidence when decisions are made about a child’s future?
    Details at

    • Resilience is a very interesting topic, and one which has to be laid alongside the neuroscience – any professional working in this field will have come across parents whose siblings have ended up with markedly different lives, despite the same exposure to neglectful parenting. I don’t know enough about resilience, but it does seem to me too simplistic to try to predict long-term prognosis for all children who have been neglected without taking into account the individual characteristics and dynamics. If you can grab me a handout from the course, I’d love to read it.

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