Arranging Custody Schedules for Special Needs Children

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Approximately 17% of children, or one in six, have one or more developmental disabilities such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The challenges of raising an autistic child or a child with other special needs can become greater during a divorce.

Devising a strong custody arrangement and parenting plan is essential to protect the best interests of the child, especially if they have special needs. The family law firm of Melone Hatley, P.C. is experienced in dealing with these complex child custody cases and can help devise a strong plan for your family that will protect your child’s mental health and well-being.

Divorces Involving Special Needs Children Are Complex. Here’s Why

When dealing with a divorce involving a child with special needs, many more factors come into play to protect their best interests. In such divorces, issues of child custody, child support, visitation, and even the division of property become far more complicated.

Consider normal child support arrangements, for example. These rarely account for the extra expenses that come with raising special needs children. Such children require additional healthcare, mental health services, medical equipment, or even a medical caregiver if the child has a physical disability. Estimating these costs can be quite complicated, as one never knows how a disability will progress or change at different stages of the child’s life.

Oftentimes, children with intellectual disabilities may have a reduced capacity to understand what is happening. An autistic child may have extra questions that are difficult to answer. Social interactions can be more complex. The day-to-day stresses of co-parenting take on a whole new dimension when the parents no longer live together, especially when dealing with a child with disabilities.

How Does Divorce Affect Children With Special Needs Differently?

A child with ADHD, ASD, depression, anxiety, learning difficulties, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, additional healthcare needs, or other special needs is less resilient in some ways than a child without disabilities. Resilience, as defined by the American Psychological Association, refers to the ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, stress, and adversity.

Children with special needs whose parents divorce may lack the self-image, social skills, confidence, and capacity for decision-making, planning, communication, and problem-solving that other children have. Such children may experience setbacks such as behavioral regression, a lack of emotional control, an inability to express themselves, difficulties with school, or a tendency to become withdrawn. The specifics of how divorce affects a child depend on many factors, including age, level of special needs, and relationship with the parents or caregivers.

How Can I Make My Divorce More Manageable for My Special Needs Child?

There are several steps parents can take to smooth the process over for a child with special needs. The most important thing is keeping their lives as consistent and stress-free as possible, which could mean more stress for the parents involved. Keep these factors in mind when devising a parenting plan for children with special needs.

Consistency Is Key

Every child needs consistency in their life. This means your parenting plan should be as straightforward as possible, with both parents on the same page. Especially with younger children, a consistent home environment is essential. When the child is at one parent’s house, their experience should be similar to when they are at the other parent’s house.

Reduce Conflict

High-conflict home environments are not good for anyone, especially children with special needs. Unfortunately, divorce is an emotionally charged time for everyone. Still, to protect your child’s mental health, you must put aside feelings of anger and betrayal and co-parent as partners.

Follow a Routine

Children with ASD, in particular, thrive on routines and schedules. As you dissolve your marriage, co-parenting such a child requires duplication of routines in each parent’s home. When a child is with the custodial parent, their schedule should be as similar as possible to the schedule at the noncustodial parent’s house.

Hire a Parent Coordinator

Not every couple has an easy time with co-parenting. In such situations, a neutral third-party parenting coordinator can help you navigate the vital day-to-day decision-making to serve your child’s best interests. They can help resolve issues related to parenting time, transitions between parents, forming an education plan with the school district, and more. If you cannot reach an agreement, the parenting coordinator can offer recommendations to help navigate issues and avoid contentious family court cases.

How Do I Determine a Parenting Plan That Works Well for My Special Needs Child?

Developing a parenting plan for your special needs child requires answering some important questions upfront. These involve co-parenting, transitions, addressing the child’s physical needs, and access to additional care.

Do I Need to Minimize Transitions?

Children with special needs may struggle if they must constantly travel between their parents’ homes. When you need to minimize these transitions, bird nesting may be a viable solution. Bird nesting is a parenting technique that enables a child to remain in a single home, with the parents moving back and forth. In such cases, the child often remains in the marital home while the parents rent a nearby small apartment together. While one has parenting time with the child in the home, the other lives in the apartment. It is a big commitment best undertaken by parents who still can work as partners. However, parents of children with ASD may find it worth the hassle.

Will We Have Joint Custody or Sole Physical Custody?

Deciding between joint or sole physical custody is difficult, even for families whose children do not have special needs. Co-parenting a child with special needs requires enormous thought and partnership. In a joint physical custody situation, you may need to be more flexible than ever in adjusting your routines to accommodate your child’s needs.

Are Both Homes Equipped for My Child’s Needs?

If your child has physical special needs requiring specialized healthcare equipment or other accommodation, both homes must have everything necessary. Both parents must be able to administer necessary medication, operate and pay for necessary equipment, and fulfill the child’s other needs.

Will the Child Be Close Enough to the Care They Need?

Each parent must be close to doctors, mental health therapists, and other healthcare professionals to ensure the child can get the care they need. Keep in mind the importance of routine as well. The child should have a single primary care physician, specific healthcare specialists, and a single therapist that both parents can access. They should never see one doctor with the custodial parent and another with the noncustodial parent.

Normally, the parent with legal custody will determine where the child gets healthcare. If parents share legal custody, they must agree on these issues.

How Can I Get Help Developing a Child Custody Schedule for my Special Needs Child?

Help is available in places you might not consider. You can speak with your child’s doctors and therapists, their school district and teachers, any helpers you might have, and even your family law attorneys for legal advice and guidance. In some cases, family courts may need to step in and help you work out what is in the best interests of your child. It is generally best, however, to come to an agreement and continue to raise your child together.

Get Legal Help With Child Custody Schedules That Keep Your Children Happy

The Melone Hatley, P.C. law offices handle all levels of family law cases in both Virginia and North Carolina. We have decades of experience dealing with issues of child custody and child support, including those involving children with special needs. If you are facing a divorce and are a parent to a special needs child, we can help. Reach out to our law offices by calling 800-479-8124 or filling out our online contact form to schedule an appointment with our dedicated legal team.

Charles Hatley

Written By Charles Hatley

Charles Hatley joined the firm in 2020 as the firm’s first Litigation Partner. Charles brings with him an unwavering emphasis on a client-focused practice model.
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