Over the past several years, Marcus Family Law Center, PLC has handled many cases involving special-needs children, and as a result, we have gotten sensitive to their particular issues. This article starts our series on tips for parents with special-needs children as they navigate through family court actions.

(By special guest author, Quirkykids Mom)

As parents of special-needs children, we learn that the world “special” can be synonymous with confusing. Each day brings us new challenges: what does this child need in order to be safe, to grow, learn, and ultimately survive? Beyond survival, how do we ensure that our sometimes challenging and distracting child to thrive?
Answering these questions for ourselves is hard enough. Educating the rest of the world with what we’ve learned is another can of worms. At that point we can get stuck. Some people are more capable of learning than others, and everyone is very busy. One place that is filled with people that are overworked yet in need of education is the family court system in California. Yet the clerks and judges and support personnel are the people who need educating the most if our children are going to make it through the divorce/parentage process safe and sound.

The needs of our children are very important in determining an appropriate custody arrangement. What the courts have deemed appropriate for typically developing children, for instance 50/50 physical custody and joint legal custody, may be downright damaging to our special-needs children. Yet that is the default, the known, the comfortable. And it can take enormous energy to make the counselors and the judge involved to deviate from the typical custody recommendation.

One obstacle is that the professionals involved lack training pertaining to custody and special needs. Our kids come with their own vocabulary for various medical specialists, mental and emotional conditions, and treatments. They are fragile in ways that the counselors and judges can’t necessarily understand.

Another issue is an impacted system with limited time to hear each case. The usual process is to see a Family Court Services Counselor first, whose job is to try to get the two parents to agree to a parenting plan. In the event they do not agree, the counselor makes a recommendation to the court (in reporting counties–see the three-part FCS blog for details). It is common for a judge to simply follow the counselor’s recommendation for custody. Yet, the counselor only spends a total of one to two hours with you. If your child’s needs are different from most, and if there is disagreement about those needs between you and your soon to be ex-spouse, there is very little time to impress these needs on the counselor. Worse yet, your first hearing with your judge is only about 20 minutes long.

So the first step is to be ready to educate the counselor and the judge in simple and quick terms. If you are represented, take the time to educate your legal team. They know how to speak the language your judge can understand, and with your help, can convey the special needs of your child succinctly and persuasively.

Over the next several blogs on this subject, I (and the members of the Barefoot Team) will talk about what language to use, which specialists to rely on, and some law you should be aware of that will increase your odds of promoting the best interests of your children.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes and it should not be relied on as legal advice. An attorney-client relationship is not formed by reading the information on this site and can only be formed by a written agreement that sets forth the scope of the relationship and the fee arrangement. There is no substitute for expert legal assistance. If you need representation, schedule a consultation with the Barefoot team.