Families with special needs children face a unique set of emotional and financial challenges that range from difficult and expensive to significantly life-altering. Due to the unique stressors, these families are at a higher risk for divorce and then face the dismantling of the family structure, further compounding the day-to-day difficulties for the parents and the children.
What does it mean to have children with special needs?
“A divorce involving a child with special needs means that a child has special challenges, which can run the gamut. In a divorce, we most often think of children with special needs as children who require a higher level of support from their parents — a child with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, addiction issues as well as physical disabilities such as diabetes, hearing loss, and a range of mild to severe physical limitations,” says New York family law attorney, Sophie Jacobi-Parisi, with Warshaw Burstein, who often represents a parent with special needs children in divorce. These families are faced with the responsibility to seek expert diagnosis, treatment protocols, school support, and a financial plan to manage their new reality, but often the relationship collapses under the pressure.
“Divorce with special needs children goes one of two ways”
“The divorce process for families with special needs goes one of two ways,” says Jacobi-Parisi. “When the parents are in agreement about the diagnosis, the care, and treatment of the child, then you have a less contentious divorce, one in which the parents will put their disputes to the side to save money and energy for their child’s current and long-term needs. But often, one parent agrees with the diagnosis and treatment while the other parent mitigates, disputes or denies it, creating significant conflict and it is a totally different divorce. It is expensive, exhausting and terribly sad.”
Parenting a special needs child completely shifts the day-to-day routine for an intact family, along with significant financial implications. As a result, there are often very specific roles that divorce then challenges in a potentially explosive way. “In a family with special needs children, one parent frequently steps forward to be the primary caregiver because there is just too much information, so when divorce happens there can be a reluctance to share information”, says Merriam Saunders, LMFT, a California licensed therapist in private practice who consults parents with special needs children. She is also a columnist for ADDitude Magazine and the author of a children’s book on ADHD, My Whirling, Twirling Motor.
“There can also be a general sense that the parent who held a lesser role in caretaking while earning the money, couldn’t possibly know how to care for the child,” says Saunders and this contributes to it evolving into a larger custody battle. Early intervention and treatment are often in the child’s best interest, so when there are cases in which one parent is the architect of the care, they should be able to move forward when a decision needs to be made swiftly, “however that does not mean the other parent should be locked out” says Jacobi-Parisi. “Lawyers who better understand all of the nuances of the legal, financial, schedule, and interpersonal dynamics can better guide and structure settlements and when absolutely necessary, provide litigation strategies to meet the family’s challenges.”
How can we better support divorcing families with special needs ?
While we have great compassion for families dealing with different kinds of special needs, we are often unaware of the complex emotional issues faced by the parents. “They often feel like a failure because their child isn’t typical, and then they will feel guilty for feeling that. These are shaming emotions, so they might not talk about it much, and they may feel like an inadequate parent. Then they may think ‘I couldn’t keep my marriage together, so I really am a failure.’” says Saunders. Seeking counseling from a parenting expert in this field provides insight and support unique to both parents’ perspectives and day-to-day burdens.
The workplace and our communities can be unaware of what families need during this time. “People who are working full-time, have children with special needs and are getting a divorce really need extra support. More awareness of the day-to-day difficulties with divorce would go a long way to support these families,” says Jacobi-Parisi, who is also the parent of children with challenges and is quick to point out that she and her husband are on the same page.
Parenting is a privilege and it is devastating when divorce challenges our simple ability to be with and care for our children. In special needs cases, the pressures and worry can be even more highly charged. As with all aspects of divorce, adopting a longer-term view and putting the needs of our children ahead of our own needs, while easier said than done, will reduce stress and conserve resources.
Whenever possible, psychoeducation for the parents about what the child is experiencing and how two parents can learn to co-parent while disagreeing about each other’s ability to care for the child is an opportunity to minimize the legal fight and focus the finances and time on the family dynamic and needs. “Therapists are a lot less expensive than lawyers,” adds Saunders.
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