The biggest stressor for divorcing or separating parents is undoubtedly how their children will adapt to their changing family dynamic. Parents have concerns about whether their children are safe; how their children are coping with spending overnights with the other parents, possibly in an unfamiliar environment; whether their children eating only pizza and fast food when they are with the other parents; whether their children are routinely taking their medication; and a litany of other concerns, some much more serious than others. Often times these concerns are heightened for parents of special needs children, particularly if their special needs child has limited communication. It can be even more overwhelming if the parents disagree on their child’s diagnosis or treatment.
The most rewarding and important aspect of my job is handling child custody matters. As a parent of two young children, I strongly believe that what is in the best interest of the child is in the best interest of the parents, but it is often difficult in the emotionally charged environment of divorce or separation to know what is actually in your child’s best interest and it’s even harder when you add in the nuances that come with special needs children.
Generally in determining custody and parenting time, the court is required to consider the best interest of a child. Under N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), there are 14 factors that the court must consider in determining the best interest of a child: (1) the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child; (2) the parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse; (3) the interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings; (4) the history of domestic violence, if any; (5) the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent; (6) the preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision; (7) the needs of the child; (8) the stability of the home environment offered; (9) the quality and continuity of the child’s education; (10) the fitness of the parents; (11) the geographical proximity of the parents’ homes; (12) the extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation; (13) the parents’ employment responsibilities; and (14) the age and number of the children.
When a family with a special needs child is facing divorce or separation many of these factors need special consideration. For example, a special needs child may benefit from a more stable living arrangement where they spend most nights in one home. A special needs child may also benefit from being in enrolled in the school district where one parent resides as compared to another school district. The special needs child’s individual circumstances should be carefully considered by the court and these needs should be balances with both parents right to parent and be a consistent figure in their child’s life.
In addition to determining custody and developing a parenting time schedule there are a number of other issues that parents of special needs children face. Parents often have to arrange and transport their children to numerous therapy and doctor’s appointments, which may be difficult with their work schedules. It is a blessing when both parents want to be involved with therapy, medical appointments and treatment, but what happens when parents are unable to communicate and cooperate with one another? Sharing of information is pivotal, but sometimes one parent believes that the second parent is holding back information, while the second parent believes that the first parent is harassing them and, if they wanted addition information, they should have attended the appointment. Often times there is resentment between the parents because one parent has flexibility to attend appointments, but on the flip-side the other parent does not have to sacrifice working hours to attend appointments. Each family is different and the arrangement that works for one family, may not work for the next. Overall, parents are left with the impossible balancing act to meet their obligations for their children with their employment and… social life (yes, hopefully soon you will be able to have a social life, too). This balancing act is even more precarious for parents with special needs children who are determining how to pay for potentially multiple types of therapy, finding childcare providers with experience with special needs children, and managing employment responsibilities.
We are fortunate that in our geographic area there are many associations who provide support for parents of special needs children. If you are concerned with your ex’s ability to handle your special needs child it may benefit your child for both of you to attend parenting seminars for parents of special needs children. If you suggest that both of you attend a seminar you are not accusing your ex of being unable or unprepared to care for your child, you are attending together for the benefit of your child, even if you drive and sit separately).
There are a litany of additional issues that need to be addressed for special needs children and divorce, but this blog is already too long. If you have made it to the end, keep a look out for another blog that is coming up on monitoring devices, therapeutic tools and special needs trusts.
If you and your spouse or partner are separated or you are considering separation, contact Melissa Knoerzer, Esq. and set up an initial consultation at 856-428-8334. Ms. Knoerzer would be happy to discuss the details of your family’s current situation and how you can best protect your and your children’s best interests.