Special needs children are special. As Helen Keller once wrote, "When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another." Divorces involving special needs children are challenging. The art of co-parenting a special needs child is taxing and may be stressful at times, but the rewards are great.
The range of conditions that are included under the "special needs" umbrella is so broad that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all families. The objective, as co-parents, is to address the unique condition of the child with the goal of positively changing the trajectory of his/her life through medical treatment, educational opportunities and social activities. Care should be given to provide the same opportunities, but sometimes through different avenues, as children without special needs are afforded.
Teachers, therapists, and medical professionals are invaluable resources for you and your family law attorney in developing the best course of action in developing a parenting plan that will provide the best possible outcome for your child in your unique situation. Critical issues involved in custody and visitation, health and medical needs, educational decisions, social and recreational activities, service and support resources, as well as child support should be addressed.
Custody and Visitation
Co-parents must take into consideration that the special needs child may need a more consistent routine than other children. The usual visitation arrangement for children is alternating between co-parents' homes on a frequent basis that may be too stressful for the special needs child. It may be better to schedule longer visits with each parent, instead of short, frequent visits. Some children, especially those with autism, when an established routine is not followed, their behavior is affected. In addition, co-parents should strive to have routines that are similar to smooth out the transition between households. Proximity between homes and to healthcare professionals is also important. The plan should provide the method of housing and transmitting special equipment, monitoring devices, medication, etc. between households.
Health and Medical Needs
Medical treatments, therapies, and ongoing appointments must be planned to make sure that the child receives necessary treatment on a timely, consistent and recommended basis. The plan should address how critical decisions will be made and how each parent is involved in the process, how information is shared, and how major procedures are reviewed and approved. Counseling, physical therapy, speech therapy, and other treatments to monitor and treat conditions should be addressed. For children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, seizures, heart ailments, diabetes, and other chronic and serious problems, care must be given to spell out decision-making procedures to follow in ongoing medical care, medication management, medical appointments, and recommended procedures. Because parents may disagree on how to care for, treat, medicate, and parent their special needs child, dispute management should be discussed as it relates to the health and safety of the child.
It is important to state how and by whom educational decisions are made. If educational decisions are shared, a method for overcoming disagreements should be addressed. For students that may require minor educational support, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides eligible students with accommodations and modifications to assist them at school. It prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ensures that the child has equal access to an education. Children who qualify for special education will be identified by the school system under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 "IDEA." This law insures individualized services to students in public schools. Eligible children will receive an Individualized Education Plan "IEP". Co-parents and their family law attorneys may obtain school records that document and describe the child's disability and IEP and 504 accommodations relating to the unique needs of the child. Home schooling is another option for some families.
Many special needs students continue their formal education after high school. Post-secondary education, training for employment, as well as preparing for independent living should be planned and financially funded. Co-parents' support is paramount during this transitional period.
Social and Recreational Activities
Play is therapy. It is important for children with special needs to be involved in social and recreational activities for their overall development and growth. Recreational sports such as volleyball, softball, swimming, etc. as well as art classes and camps add to the well-rounded aspects of their social and physical development. Flexibility in scheduling, transporting and participating in your child's activities may be shared between co-parents. Agreed activities, as well as their cost, need to be included in the parenting plan.
Service and Support Resources
Co-parenting a special needs child may be a never-ending job. It may be prudent to have backup support such as relatives that are qualified to help and support groups that are designed to advise plus parents who have experienced the same problems. Keeping up-to-date on those issues that are relevant to your child's condition is important. Joining an association that specializes in your child's condition such as the American Diabetes Association in the case of diabetes, may be beneficial. Depending on the situation, state, federal, and private assistance may be available.
Child support guidelines usually do not account for the additional expenses associated with the special needs child. Your family law attorney may recommend a deviated amount based on special circumstances.
Each child is different with his/her strengths and problems. Each family is unique. But one thing is consistent--children with special needs require the support and love of both parents. When co-parents work together to develop a parenting plan…specifically designed for the child's unique profile (whether physical, emotional, developmental, behavioral, or learning driven)… they can help the child reach their potential with their self-esteem intact.