Special Needs Children
Determining child custody, visitation schedules, and child support after a divorce can be emotional for everyone involved. But when a child with special needs is involved, this process can be more complex than usual.
Caring for and providing for a child with special needs requires special attention and cooperation between parents, and it requires the court to be fair and understanding. If you are navigating child custody, visitation, or support issues for a child with special needs, contact the Law Office of Heath Baker. As a Riverside native, Mr. Baker has a thorough understanding of California family law and how to best approach your family law situation. Call (951) 222-2228 or contact us online to schedule your free consultation today.
Children With Special Needs
“Special needs” is an incredibly broad category that tries to cover a wide range of diagnoses. A child with special needs may have anything from a learning disability or developmental delays to a terminal illness or psychiatric problems.
It is important to define a child with special needs by what he or she can do—not by what he or she cannot do. Every child with special needs is incredibly unique and presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for his or her family. A family living with a developmentally challenged child will experience something completely different than a family living with a chronically ill child, and it is important to provide for each child’s needs differently.
Despite their profound differences, parents of a child with special needs often have to deal with similar issues. Many parents have a vision in mind of their child’s life, including everything from schooling to career aspirations; with a child with special needs, it is important for parents to be flexible and keep the child’s best interests in mind at all times, regardless of individual goals or notions of progress. Parents must be flexible in terms of the future, as a child with special needs can experience different medical or social issues as time goes on. Parents of a special needs child must work to ensure their child is well-socialized and accepted by family members, teachers, and friends. It is also imperative for parents to seek out appropriate resources and accommodations to best suit the child.
Parents of a child with special needs often deal with other similar considerations, including:
- Medical Needs: depending on the situation, a child with special needs may need lengthy hospital stays, numerous tests, expensive home equipment, and special accommodations for disability. Medical conditions for children with special needs are widely varied and can include heart conditions, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, asthma, dwarfism, food allergies, obesity, and more.
- Behavioral Needs: a child with special needs often requires a non-traditional discipline strategy, both in the home and at school. ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Dysfunction of Sensory Integration, autism, and Tourette Syndrome are examples of diagnoses that require specialized strategies and flexibility from parents.
- Developmental Needs: parents of a child with special needs must work hard to ensure the child receives appropriate education, services, therapy, and social opportunities. A child with autism, Down syndrome, or an intellectual disability requires non-mainstream strategies for schooling and socialization, and parents must be diligent about exploring all opportunities for the child.
- Learning Needs: parents and teachers of a learning-challenged child must work to make sure the child keeps up with schoolwork and does not become discouraged in his or her struggles. Dyslexia, Central Auditory Processing Disorder, and other learning disabilities make it difficult for a child to perform well in school, despite his or her intellectual ability.
- Mental Health Needs: parents of a child with mental health needs must be prepared to find the right professional help and make big decisions about therapy and other medical care. Anxiety, depression, attachment issues, and other mental health needs necessitate compassionate and understanding care.
California law aims to put the child’s best interests first in all matters of family law. Family Code section 3020 states “…it is the public policy of this state to assure that the health, safety, and welfare of children shall be the court’s primary concern in determining the best interest of children when making any orders regarding the physical or legal custody or visitation of children.” The court considers a wide range of factors to determine the “best interest of the child,” including:
- The relationship between both parents and the children
- The primary or custodial parent
- The amount of time spent with the child by each parent
- The ability of each parent to provide for and take care of the child
- The age and health of the child
- Any history of abuse, violence, substance abuse, or other negative environmental factors
The court typically favors the more stable option when it comes to child custody; in other words, the court prefers continuity whenever possible, and it will need a compelling reason to move a child from one parent’s home to another.
No matter the family situation, California courts will always look to act in the best interests of the child. However, when a child with special needs is involved, determining the child’s best interests can become more complex. Depending on the child’s disability, the court must take several other considerations into account when determining the child custody arrangement. This includes:
- Education: Will the child require a special needs class? Does either parent live in a school district with appropriate educational programming for the child? If not, will the child need to attend a different type of school or be home-schooled?
- Social opportunities: How will each parent provide for the social needs of the child? Are there groups or organizations nearby that can help the child socialize with others? Is the child already involved with one of these groups?
- Childcare: What will the custodial parent do when he or she is unable to care for the child due to work or other obligations? Is there a trusted babysitter or childcare facility in the area? How comfortable is the child with the childcare arrangement?
- Healthcare: Does the child require ongoing medical support, either in-home or at a healthcare facility? How will each parent work to accommodate the child’s healthcare needs?
Education and socialization are extremely important for children with special needs. The court will work with both parents to determine how best to provide for the child’s schooling and socialization; sometimes this involves tutoring outside of school, support groups around town, or other resources within the community.
Child support is calculated using a complex formula that takes each parent’s income into account, as well as the time each parent spends with the child. Additional factors, such as childcare expenses and the remainder of the family’s financial situation, can also come into play when determining child support.
But when the court sets child support amounts for a child with special needs, the usual formula is often inadequate. Depending on the disability in question, additional expenses can include:
- Alternative schooling and/or tutoring
- Medical equipment
- Dietary needs
The California Family Code states that the court can deviate from the standard child custody formula to accommodate the medical and educational costs of caring for a child with special needs. During the divorce and negotiation process, it is important to document any and all costs of caring for the child to ensure you receive adequate child support.
After a divorce, the typical visitation schedule involves alternating weekends, midweek visits, and longer visits during holidays or summer vacation. (Of course, this schedule is subject to the court’s determination of what is best for the child and depends on each parent’s relationship with the child.)
However, depending on the child’s mental and physical capabilities, a different visitation schedule could be more beneficial. For example, most children with autism are not comfortable with unexpected changes to their daily routine. A midweek visit can throw off the child’s schedule, leading to struggles at school or at home. One solution for this is to schedule longer visits (ideally when school is not in full swing) to give the non-custodial parent time with the child without causing unnecessary stress or disruptions.
In addition to the set visitation schedule, it is important to keep the child’s needs in mind during day-to-day scheduling changes. For children who are not equipped to deal with sudden changes to the routine, parents should avoid any last-minute adjustments. Changing the time of the visit, the location of the visit, or other aspects of the schedule can cause unnecessary anxiety or upset the child.
At the end of the day, creating a visitation schedule for a child with special needs comes down to consistency. Parents should work to ensure that the routine at each home is similar, serving to complement one another. If each parent works to ensure continuity and comfort, everyone will stand to benefit. Raising a child with special needs requires the cooperation and open communication of both parents. Only with the love and support of both parents can a child with special needs enjoy the best educational opportunities, social experiences, and relationships with family.
Contact a Riverside Family Law Attorney
You and your child deserve committed, vigorous representation. Family law attorney Heath Baker knows the ins and outs of the law as only a former police officer and private investigator could. Using that knowledge and experience, Mr. Baker will fight for the best outcome for you and your unique situation.
If you have a child with special needs and need guidance in divorce, child custody, child support, or other family law matters, contact the Law Office of Health L. Baker.