Where might separating parents begin with special needs co-parenting?

The needs and capabilities of special needs children vary endlessly. Not only do they differ from child to child, but they can also develop and change very quickly. In a divorce involving a child with special needs, it is important at the outset to make sure that both parents understand both the day-to-day caregiving impact as well as the financial impact. Does the child require a feeding tube? Does the child require a weighted blanket to help with focus or control certain behaviors? Does the child require adaptive tools for learning, such as an iPad with speech applications? Where is the child at educationally?

And one of the most difficult considerations for many parents: Planning for the future. These are all issues that require careful attention and appropriate, individualized planning. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to special needs parenting.

How can parents ensure they have access and eligibility to public benefits available to them?

One of the first steps that any parent should take is to have your child evaluated by their pediatrician. Some children have needs or diagnoses that are discoverable even before birth, others do not become known or suspected until later, when developmental milestones are not reached, such as crawling, walking or speech. Medical tests will often be done, and frequently a referral to places such as Inland Regional Center or Regional Center of Orange County. These non-profit organizations evaluate and extend services to special needs children and their families. From these organizations a vast amount of assistance and information is provided to further help families in learning about the needs of the child, obtain financial assistance and continued support through the school districts and other governmental agencies.

In many cases, when children are approximately 3 years old, if they qualify, the school districts can then step into the shoes of local regional centers and have varying resources available for preschool age children and as they grow, Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are implemented to help special needs children in their learning environment.

A common misconception is that, if a child is receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income) that this is deductible from the amount of child support to be paid, or that it is includible in the income of the primary custodial parent. Neither of these is true. SSI is just as it states: a supplemental income for the child that has been determined necessary due to, or as a result of, the child’s specific needs or impairments. SSI is deemed unearned income of the child, and therefore has no material impact on the child support calculation.

Are child custody evaluations different for parents of special needs children?

Generally speaking, there is nothing different in the court’s analysis when looking at a special needs case. By the law, the court is required to always consider “What is in the child’s best interest?” That being said, there are definitely different things that may come into play when considering best interest in certain special needs situations. For example, if a child has a physical impairment, that requires handicap access, and that family home has been adapted with ramps, handrails, wheelchair accessible doorways, or things of that nature, then the court may find that it is in the best interest of the child to reside primarily in that home. There is actually a specific statute, Family Code §3802, that allows for the sale of a family home to be deferred under this exact scenario.

There are some children who suffer extreme distress with transitions. While most certainly, transitions are frequently difficult for all children during a separation and divorce, there are some diagnoses, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, a symptom of which can be behavioral episodes when a child’s routine is disrupted—this may also be a consideration the court would need to evaluate when determining what custodial arrangement is in the children’s best interest.

Besides a family law attorney, who are other professionals that might provide assistance?

Depending on the needs of the child, there may be doctors and medical specialists who will be instrumental in helping to understand the specific requirements for a child. Whether it is specialized medical care, such as insulin injections or frequent doctor’s appointments to monitor a chronic condition. Many special needs families also have multiple therapy appointments per week, whether it is with a speech pathologist, occupational therapist or physical therapist. There are other treatments which may seem unconventional to some, but have proven track records in treatment, such as hippotherapy—which can assist in not only gross and fine motor skills, but also in speech and language development. There are applied behavioral analysis teams, also known as ABA therapy, widely seen as the best treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder. This can involve trips to clinics, as well as in-home therapies. Another major component would be a child’s IEP team, who help develop and track the educational goals for special needs children in the school setting.

With all these facets of special needs family life, it is essential that both parents remain involved to the best degree possible. Having a family law attorney that understands these requirements and the importance they have to your child’s development is key in coming up with a plan that works for you and your child.

Additional Resources About Special Needs Co-Parenting

Divorce and Special Needs Children
Child Support for Special Needs Children