The Special Needs Child: Divorce Considerations

August 15, 2015

Best interest of the child is a standard most often used to determine post-divorce behavior and lifestyle. Two children can be similar and yet what is best for one may not be best for another. Child custody evaluators, guardians ad litem, and ultimately judges assess the child’s needs from slightly different perspectives. Nevertheless, each strives to understand the best interest of the child in the context of a particular family.

Parent with childrenUnderstanding the best interest of the child is complicated when the child is determined to have special needs. Saposnek, et al (2005) defined a child as having special needs if they had an acute life-threatening medical condition; chronic developmental disorder; or psychological or behavioral issues. Some of the most common special needs children seen in family law cases are those with speech and language disorders; learning disorders; pervasive developmental disorders (Autism/Asperger’s Disorder); sensory impairments such as visual or auditory impairments; psychiatric disorders; intellectual impairment; traumatic brain injury; orthopedic conditions as well as a number of diseases that alter a child’s ability to effectively interact and deal with the world around them.

The special needs child must be assessed with specific reference to the child and their parents’ ability to provide the necessary care. A child with a mild to moderate impairment may be too taxing for a marginal parent, yet a child with a severe disability may be appropriately handled by a parent who is equipped with the necessary skills and proper support systems.  As we have stated in other articles in this series when it comes to what is best for children after divorce, there is no one size fits all. The key is in asking the right questions.

What Experts Can You Retain To Seek Answers About Special Needs and Divorce?

Family attorneys working with divorcing families who have a child with special needs should make no assumption about the needs of the child based solely on the child having a specific disorder. The wise attorney should seek consultation from professionals who specialize in the care and treatment of the disabilities that the child possesses. By using these experts, they can assist you in learning the specific challenges of the specific child and the need for care. The specialist can also shed light on how well each parent understands the child’s needs and can manage the care and treatment. The scope of professionals for consultation may include physicians, mental health professionals, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, educational consultants and financial consultants. Each type of professional can offer their unique perspective on the child as well as how well their parents understand their condition and treatment requirements.

Do You Need An Independent Evaluation?

When parents differ in their understanding of their child’s condition, treatments, and prognosis, it is time for an independent evaluation. When parents are not unified, you will often see parental conflict over the value of treatment and the long-term outcome predictions for the child. It is essential to determine the reality of the child’s condition versus how their parents’ view the condition. Some parents take a catastrophic view of their child’s disability to help justify the need for intensive care, treatment and support. Other parents are in denial and can minimize the severity of the current condition as well as long-term implications for treatment. The expert’s view of the child and the parents’ ability to provide the necessary care will assist the attorneys in moving forward with a parenting plan that accommodates the child’s special needs. Optimally, this expert will be a neutral appointed via a stipulated agreement or by the court. Often these special needs issues can be handled in the course of a Child Custody Evaluation or Brief Focused Evaluation with specific concerns centering on recommendations regarding the child’s special needs. The brief focused evaluation is perfect if the questions under investigation are limited to the actual assessment, treatment, needs, and prognosis of a child with special needs.

What Is The Focus Of The Evaluation?

Recommendations from an expert will likely focus on, but are not limited to, issues such as the extent of the disorder; level of disability; prognosis; special equipment (e.g. wheelchairs), medication, treatments; educational needs; costs of the treatments and ongoing monitoring of the child’s needs; nursing or other care; lifetime financial maintenance of the child (if the special need is severe); transportation needs, etc. The evaluator can provide a neutral assessment of the issues followed by well reasoned recommendations which are custom fit for the specific child and their parents. The evaluation also helps you determine the future needs of the child which can be factored into a financial settlement agreement.

Posted Under: Divorce and Family

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