Going through a divorce can be a difficult time for all family members, including the children. The stress of dealing with a child that has a serious illness or difficulty prior to the initiation of a divorce may accelerate during the divorce process. We call such a child the “Special Needs Child”. This child has apparent or diagnosed emotional/medical problems.
Special Needs children are seriously impacted by the decisions made during a divorce. Many times the child becomes more vulnerable not knowing with is happening but very afraid of losing mom or dad forever and causing additional emotional and behavioral problems at home. It is important for parties to determine how meaningful regular visitation will be accomplished and which parent will have the right to make major decisions on how to address the child’s emotional and medical needs. During a divorce, most parents have difficulty agreeing on issues, especially issues related to the problems associated with a “special needs” child.
I. Child with Emotional Issues:
Children will always experience some level of negative emotions during the divorce process, even in the best circumstances. When a child has a mental illness or emotional problem, how visitation periods are managed, who has the authority to make a decision on medical treatment and therapy and how such decisions will be followed and enforced in each parent’s household will greatly affect the success or failure of the final decree as it pertains to the child. It is very important to have an order that is flexible and meets the child’s changing needs, yet remains enforceable should action need to be taken due to a parent’s failure to meet the needs or comply with the court’s order.
Three of the most reported emotional and behavioral issues involving children are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Behavioral or Conduct Disorders, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and chemical addictions.
2. Special Medical Needs
When a child has significant medical health problems or disabilities parents may have very different opinions on who should be the decision maker regarding doctors, medications and regimens for a particular situation. This may be compounded by the emotions and breakdown in the marital relationship often caused by the stress and differing opinions of the parents on the care of the child. The Court must help to balance the needs and rights of the parents so that each has a voice in their child’s treatment decisions. It is also important that the parties along with the Court work for a consistent treatment protocol to meet the child’s medical needs and best interests.
The real battleground in custody cases becomes the allocation of rights and duties between the parties. This is exacerbated when the child involved has emotional or medical needs. Other factors that may compound issues are 1) other children involved and 2) whether they also have special needs. Major problems occur when there are differing views between the parents on how to best treat the problem or a lack of consensus among medical and mental health professionals as to the appropriate protocol for treatment and uncertainty among family courts as to which protocol
to “impose” upon the family.
Texas Courts vary greatly on how each allocates rights and duties, even in joint managing conservatorship situations. In the event the parties cannot agree on the allocation of rights pertaining to educational and medical decisions the courts must award custody based on the principle of what is the best interest of the child. The Court will consider many factors in developing a parenting plan including the development status of the child, the child’s temperament, and each child’s specific needs.
To make a meaningful decision on the care of the child, the court will need evidence of the following:
• Which parent is the most involved in the decision making as pertains to the relevant issue?
• What are the competing theories of how to best treat the child?
• Current opinions from the child’s physician and /or therapist.
• What is the generally accepted treatment for the specific condition?
• What is the likelihood of each parent following the protocol selected by the court?
• How successful has the treatment been in the past?
• What are the attitudes of the parents in relation to considering alternative methods if the current situation doesn’t work?
• Which parent has shown a proven effort at recognizing the child’s needs and working to address them?
The selection of a reputable expert in the particular field in which the child is affected is paramount to a true evaluation of the situation. Not all doctors and therapists are created equal and the expert must be a specialist in working with the child’s specific problem.
After the divorce is concluded, raising a special needs child requires a high degree of collaboration between both parents. This child feels very afraid and doesn’t have to be put in the middle of a parental alienation feud which could cause long term mental and physical scarring for both the child and the parents. Parents, think about your child! Your child didn’t ask for a divorce but they will have to live with the consequences, good or bad, that your decisions leave them!
Rights and Duties of a Parent – Joint Managing Conservator in Texas.
Waiver To the Guidelines is a Matter of Court Discretion
As a joint managing conservator of a child in a divorce proceeding in Texas, unless special circumstances arise justifying a variance from the Guidelines, the Court will normally order guideline code rights and duties and a parent will be awarded the following:
1.the right to receive information from any other conservator of the child concerning the health, education, and welfare of the child.
2.the right to confer with the other parent to the extent possible before making a decision concerning the health, education, and welfare of the child.
3.the right of access to medical, dental, psychological, and educational records of the child.
4.the right to consult with a physician, dentist, or psychologist of the child.
5.the right to consult with school officials concerning the child’s welfare and educational status, including school activities.
6.the right to attend school activities.
7.the right to be designated on the child’s records as a person to be notified in case of an emergency.
8.the right to consent to medical, dental, and surgical treatment during an emergency involving an immediate danger to the health and safety of the child.
9.the right to manage the estate of the child to the extent the estate has been created by the parent/conservator or the parent/conservator’s family.
10.the duty to inform the other conservator of the child in a timely manner of significant information concerning the health, education, and welfare of the child; and
11.the duty to inform the other conservator of the child if the conservator resides with for at least thirty days, marries, or intends to marry a person who the conservator knows is registered as a sex offender under chapter 62 of the Code of Criminal Procedure or is currently charged with an offense for which on conviction the person would be required to register under that chapter. IT IS ORDERED that this information shall be tendered in the form of a notice made as soon as practicable, but not later than the fortieth day after the date the conservator of the child begins to reside with the person or on the tenth day after the date the marriage occurs, as appropriate. IT IS ORDERED that the notice must include a description of the offense that is the basis of the person’s requirement to register as a sex offender or of the offense with which the person is charged. WARNING: A CONSERVATOR COMMITS AN OFFENSE PUNISHABLE AS A CLASS C MISDEMEANOR IF THE CONSERVATOR FAILS TO PROVIDE THIS NOTICE.
12.the duty of care, control, protection, and reasonable discipline of the child.
13.the duty to support the child, including providing the child with clothing, food, shelter, and medical and dental care not involving an invasive procedure.
14.the right to consent for the child to medical and dental care not involving an invasive procedure.
15.the right to direct the moral and religious training of the child.
16.Only one parent shall have the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of child in a specific geographical area, which is commonly the county in which the child currently resides and the contiguous counties thereto.
17.the right to consent to medical, dental, and surgical treatment involving invasive procedures may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right;
18.the right to consent to psychiatric and psychological treatment of the child may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right;
19.Only one parent shall have the exclusive right to receive and give receipt for periodic payments for the support of the child and to hold or disburse these funds for the benefit of the child;
20.the right to represent the child in legal action and to make other decisions of substantial legal significance concerning the child may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right;
21.the right to consent to marriage and to enlistment in the armed forces of the United States may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right;
22.the right to make decisions concerning the child’s education may be subject to agreement, an independent right a joint right or an exclusive right;
23.except as provided by section 264.0111 of the Texas Family Code, the right to the services and earnings of the child may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right;
24.except when a guardian of the child’s estate or a guardian or attorney ad litem has been appointed for the child, the right to act as an agent of the child in relation to the child’s estate if the child’s action is required by a state, the United States, or a foreign government may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right; and
25.the right to manage the estate of the child to the extent the estate has been created by community property or the joint property of the parent/conservator may be subject to agreement, an independent right or an exclusive right.
In accordance with section 153.001 of the Texas Family Code, it is the public policy of Texas to assure that children will have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of the child, to provide a safe, stable, and nonviolent environment for the child, and to encourage parents to share in the rights and duties of raising their child after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage. The Court will therefore normally establish the primary residence of the child in the county where the child currently resides and/or a contiguous county thereto, and the parties shall not remove the child from such county for the purpose of changing the primary residence of child until there is a modification to the existing order of the court of continuing jurisdiction or a written agreement signed by the parties and filed with the court.
The geographical restriction on the residence of the child may be lifted or modified if, at the time the primary parent with the right to establish residence wishes to remove the child from the county for the purpose of changing the primary residence of the child, the other parent does not reside in that county or a contiguous county thereto.
Time constraints, employment issues of the primary Joint Managing Conservator, and other material factors may come into play when a Joint Managing Conservator requests waiver of the geographical restrictions. It customarily is a very difficult, but not always insurmountable, burden to achieve a geographical restriction waiver. The success, consistency and regularity of the non-primary conservator’s possession and access to the child is a factor the court will view in making a ruling. Frequently, an agreement to adjust the amount of support and/or transportation costs comes into play in resolving such disputes.
Co-parenting with an ex-spouse or partner gives children stability and fosters similar rules, discipline and rewards between households. It promotes a child’s ability to more effectively and peacefully solve problems and establishes a life pattern children can carry into the future.
Effective co-parenting means that your own emotions – anger, resentment or hurt – must take back seat to the needs of your children. Setting aside these feelings may be the hardest obstacle to overcome after a divorce. It is important that you remember, co-parenting is not about your feelings, or those of your ex-spouse, but rather about your children’s future happiness and stability.
The following are useful tips to assist you with co-parenting in the future.
- Do not talk negatively, or allow others to talk negatively, about the other parent, their family and friends or their home in hearing range of the child.
- Do not question the children about the other parent or the activities of the other parent regarding their personal lives. In simple terms, do not use the child to spy on the other parent.
- Do not argue or have heated discussions with the other parent when the children are present or during an exchange.
- Do not make promises to the children to try and win them over at the expense of the other parent.
- Communicate with the other parent and make similar rules in reference to discipline, bedtime routines, sleeping arrangements, and schedules. Appropriate discipline should be exercised by mutually agreed of both parents.
- At all times, the decision made by the parents should be for the child’s psychological, spiritual, and physical well-being and safety.
- Visitation arrangements should be made and confirmed beforehand between the parents without involving the child in order to avoid any false hopes, disappointments or resentments toward the other parent.
- Notify the other parent in a timely manner of the need to deviate from the order, including cancelling visits, rescheduling appointments, and promptness.
- Do not schedule activities for the child during the other parent’s period of possession without the other parent’s consent. However, both parents should work together to allow the child to be involved in extracurricular activities.
- Inform the other parent of any scholastic, medical, psychiatric, or extracurricular activity or appointments of the child.
- Keep the other parent informed at all times of your address and telephone number. If you are out of town with the child, provide the other parent the address and phone number where your children may be reached in case of an emergency.
- Refer to the other parent as the child’s mother or father in conversation, rather than using the parents first or last name.
- Do not bring the child into adult issues and adult conversations about custody, the court, or about the other party.
- Do not ask the child where they want to live.
- Do not attempt to alienate the other parent from the child’s life.
- Do not allow stepparents or others to negatively alter or modify your relationship with the other parent.
- Do not use phrases that draw the children into your issues or make them feel guilty about time spent with their other parent. For example, rather than saying, “I miss you,” say “I Love You.”
As you begin to co-parent, you and your ex are bound, on occasion, to disagree. It isn’t necessary to meet in person—speaking over the phone or exchanging emails is fine for the majority of conversations. The goal is conflict-free communication, so see which type of contact works best for you. Keep the conversations kid-based.
Remember, respect can go a long way, keep talking, don’t sweat the small stuff, and be willing to compromise.
Despite the difficulties faced in a divorce, the children should not be placed in the center of the crossfire. During the divorce process, and sometimes following the divorce process, it is not uncommon for a parent to become so wrapped up in anger, vengeance or simply being “right” that they forget the effect the whole process is having on the children. Below are some behaviors to avoid and some suggestions to assist you with improving your communications during the divorce process:
- Do not use children as messengers between “mom” and “dad.”
- Do not criticize your former spouse in the presence of your children because children realize they are part “mom” and part “dad.”
- Resist any temptation to allow your children to act as your caretaker. Children need to be allowed the freedom to be “children.” Taking on such responsibility at an early age degrades their self-esteem, feeds anger and hinders a child’s ability to relate to their peers.
- Encourage your children to see your former spouse frequently. Promote a good relationship for the benefit of the child.
- Do not argue with your former spouse in the presence of the children. No matter what the situation, the child will feel torn between taking “mommy’s” side and “daddy’s” side.
- At every step during the divorce process, remind yourself that your children’s interests are paramount, even over your own.
- If you are the non-primary parent, pay your child support.
- If you are the primary parent and are not receiving child support, do not tell your children. This feeds a child’s sense of abandonment and erodes their stability.
- Remember that the Court’s view child support and child custody as two separate and distinct issues. Children do not understand whether “mommy” and/or “daddy” paid child support, but they do understand that “mommy” and/or “daddy” wants to see me.
- If at all possible, do not uproot your children. When a family is falling apart, a child needs a stable home and school life to buffer the trauma.
- If you have an addiction problem, whether it be drugs, alcohol or any other affliction, seek help immediately. Such impairments inhibit your ability to reassure your children and give them the attention they need.
- If you are having difficulty dealing with issues relating to your former spouse, discuss such issues with mental health professionals and counselors.
- Reassure your children that they are loved and that they have no fault in the divorce.
Though these steps are not all-inclusive, they will assist you in dealing with the complex issues of a divorce and hopefully minimize the impact of the divorce process on the children.