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Custody of Special Needs Children

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What is Child Custody?

Generally, child custody disputes arise in court cases related to divorce, legal separation, or child neglect. Child custody refers to the legal right and responsibility to care, control, and provide for a child. There are two kinds of child custody: legal custody and physical custody.  

Legal custody grants the right to make important decisions regarding the raising of the child, including issues related to: education, medical care, religion, and discipline. On the other hand, physical custody determines where the child with live. 

Often courts will award joint custody of a child in a divorce proceeding, which allows the child to split time with both parents according to a visitation schedule determined by either a parenting plan or child custody order.

What are Special Needs Children?

Special needs children are those children who have unique medical, mental, or emotional health issues that require special attention. Often the special needs of the child can have a dramatic impact on deciding child custody. For example, if the child has a physical impairment, the court may focus on whether the parents’ homes are easily accessible and safe for the child. 

In contrast, if the child has mental or emotional health issues, the court may focus on minimizing the disruption to the child’s life and seek to keep the child close to their current service providers.

How Does Custody of Special Needs Children Work?

In any child custody determination, the decisions are made according to the child’s best interest standard. Under the best interest standard, the court uses several factors to determine the best placement for the child. However, special needs children often require a greater level of care. Therefore, the court considers additional factors when deciding special needs custody, some of these include:

  • The parent’s ability to care for the special needs of the child (e.g. does the parent have the time and money required to provide care);
  • The parent’s ability to provide medical care for the child;
  • Whether the child is subject to special orders or instructions from a doctor;
  • Will the child have proper access to property (i.e., wheelchair ramps, etc.);
  • Will suitable medical care be available for the child’s needs;
  • The child’s current adjustment to a new home, school, community, or religion;
  • The ability of the child to adjust to a new home, school, community, or religion;
  • The location of the child’s current care providers; and/or
  • Communication of the parents.

In some cases, the child may require a special caregiver to be present during custody sessions. In other cases, the court may appoint custody to a designated guardian in the event that neither parent is deemed fit or capable of caring for the child.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Special Needs Custody?

Child custody disputes regarding a child with special needs can be extremely complicated and contentious. If you are involved in a custody dispute, consulting a skilled child custody lawyer can help immensely. An experienced attorney can provide legal advice, gather evidence, interview witnesses, and represent you in court.

Photo of page author John Kirby

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 11-13-2017 01:49 PM PST

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