Parent Advocate & Mediator Rebecca Stern Explains How to Help Children with Special Needs Survive and Thrive From a Divorce

Rebecca Stern devotes her practice to helping parents going through a divorce support their child with special needs and every level.

When parents with minor children are getting divorced, they usually sit down with their legal counsel to work out a custody and visitation schedule for the kids. “IF” a couple has a child with special needs, that landscape is going to look a lot different for a mirage of reasons. Issues such as custody, visitation, financial support, therapy, childcare, medical benefits, special schooling, and tutoring can cost a lot more and therefore it can possibly make this matter more complex to negotiate and reach a settlement on. Why? Because when everyone talks about the money and the sum of what everything adds up to, it often financially exceeds what things typically run. That can put a monetary strain on mom/dad and lead to further arguments. Experts in “the special needs” area stress, not only do both sides need to address what funds should to be set aside for the children “now,” but they also need to look ahead as the child get older and how those needs could possibly change. The price tag of a divorce under these circumstances can potentially be a lot higher than the average divorce. If you are a parent of a special needs child, make sure your attorney has extensive knowledge on how to handle a case that involves a child with special needs and have a Rolodex of experts to call if their services/skills are needed.

Rebecca Stern is the Founder of Pearl Mediation and focuses her attention on divorce and family mediation that involves children with special learning, behavior, and mental health needs. Rebecca is recognized as parent advocate so her knowledge helps parents survive and thrive from the many challenges during this transition.

Ilyssa Panitz: You have a strong background in handling cases that involve a special needs child. For couples who are going through a divorce and trying to work out a custody/visitation schedule, what needs to be in that agreement to make sure the essentials the child requires are met?

Rebecca Stern: The best interest of the child should always be paramount, and in cases involving children with unique learning needs, that means taking extra time to ensure their specific challenges are being appropriately, and sufficiently supported at all times. A parent with legal/decision-making custody of a child with special needs should have a full understanding and acceptance of that child’s diagnosis, its underlying causes (not just what behaviors may result), and what’s required to support that child’s needs. A parent with physical custody of a child with special needs should be knowledgeable about and able to provide whatever is needed. Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with schools, tutoring, clinical professionals, specialized routines, medications, and an overall heightened level of parental attention may all be part of this picture.

Ilyssa Panitz: In your experience as a mediator, what tips can you share that help couples work out an arrangement that everyone can live by and stick to?

Rebecca Stern: An agreement is only as good as its ability to elicit compliance from the parties. If a negotiation becomes a game in which the win is getting a signature, the agreement is likely to fall apart in the future. I encourage clients to carefully weigh what they know they can live with. It can be tempting to want to get done as quickly as possible, but that should never be at the cost of walking away with an agreement that won’t have longevity. If you know your former spouse is unlikely to follow through, getting them to say they will on paper will only end in frustration. Ultimately if the opposing party fails to comply with an executed agreement, your only recourse may be through an expensive court process… and it’s our aim to avoid that in the first place.

Ilyssa Panitz: What do you suggest?

Rebecca Stern: I suggest creating a special education agreement within your marital settlement agreement. Your special education agreement should include planning for how you intend to support your child’s special needs, and how related expenses will be financed. If there is potential for disagreement over what supports are needed (a common concern), I often ask the parties to select a mutually agreed upon related clinical professional they trust and use that person’s professional recommendations as the benchmark for what’s appropriate, should the parents disagree. This can be helpful on two fronts, as hearing recommendations from a professional is often better received than from your co-parent.

Ilyssa Panitz: Let’s talk money because for parents with a special needs child, that can be costly. What are some examples of how parents split the bills, so this matter does not drag out into a courtroom?

Rebecca Stern: My first suggestion to avoid battles over high-priced services is to do your homework and find ways to reduce those costs without diminishing services. Every special needs child is entitled to a FAPE (Fair Appropriate Public Education) and the IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 (of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973). They were created to protect a child’s right to special services if diagnosed with a qualifying disability. That means your school district, through their Child Study Team, must provide or reimburse for appropriate accommodations. That may mean preferential seating or extra test time for a child with ADHD, sessions with an occupational therapist for sensory issues, or even an out-of-district placement to a private school with your home district paying the tuition for more serious challenges such as autism. I recommend talking with your Director of Special Services, and if your child’s needs aren’t being adequately met, retaining a parent advocate. You may be able to receive greater health insurance reimbursements than you are currently aware of for clinical services for your child. Most carriers have a special needs parent advocacy liaison you can connect with to see if you’re targeting the best providers for maximum reimbursement, and if your submitting claims in an optimum way. There are also insurance advocates who can fight to get you the maximum coverage you’re entitled to.

Ilyssa Panitz: Insurance Advocates sound like a great resource.

Rebecca Stern: Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. You will never know if a program or provider is willing to charge you less unless you ask, and many are willing to offer a sliding fee scale if there’s a need. When it comes to dividing these expenses, an agreement usually assigns responsibility in proportion to each party’s income, just as with other variable child-related expenses. The argument usually comes when parents disagree as to what service is actually necessary for their child. This takes us back to using that trusted clinical professional to assess what’s needed.

Ilyssa Panitz: Moving on to custody/visitation. How should a couple be structuring a schedule that again, centers on the child’s needs/requirements?

Rebecca Stern: Like any parenting schedule, decisions should be based on what’s in the best interest of the child. It’s not about “your time”. It’s about what creates the most stability, consistency, and safety for your child. What’s worked in the past is a good indicator of how you can best plan for the future. Think very specifically about daily routine, what keeps your child on track, and what may trigger negative behavior. Remember that the sharing of parenting time is about your child and should never be used as a bargaining chip or threat in a negotiation.

Ilyssa Panitz: What if the child requires certain medications or special therapy and a person’s “ex” does not administer it or take the child to an appointment? Since you are trained as a parent advocate, what should a person do, besides call their lawyer, and spend hundreds of dollars or does a person need to bring this matter in front of a Judge to make sure these things are enforced when the child is with the other parent?

Rebecca Stern: Document everything. Keeping a journal that relates to parenting time is a valuable tool. If an agreement is not being followed you can point to the deviations and back that up. If you anticipate co-parenting issues, it may be wise to request the assignment by the court of a parenting coordinator. A parenting coordinator is a neutral who can essentially mediate parenting plan matters between you and your co-parent to keep things running smoothly. The coordinator will always put your child’s best interest first and will report directly to the judge.

Ilyssa Panitz: Going through a divorce, juggling a career, taking care of other kids on top of tending to a child with special needs can be overwhelming. What advice do you have for parents starting over and trying to figure out how to find their new groove?

Rebecca Stern: Ask for help! There’s this romanticized notion that no matter what’s going on we’re supposed to be photo-ready for a social media campaign at any moment. These ideals we all compare ourselves to always show Mom & Dad & their little darlings enjoying the perfect activity while sporting perfect smiles and even perfect hair. Bullshit… You know all hell broke loose the second portrait mode closed on that phone. Life is messy. We all need help sometimes, and most of us are totally uncomfortable asking for it. Time to get over it. The people in your life need to know what you need. They want to be there for you and need to know HOW to show up for you. Whether it’s understanding your finances, learning to use the grill (which is not that hard by the way), making a career connection, helping with the kids, not showing up to a tough event alone, or asking to be included in the dinner plans, asking for help is an act of courage, not weakness. We need to talk to ourselves, how we talk to our dearest friends, with less judgement and more generosity.

Ilyssa Panitz: When the kids are with a person’s “ex,” what do you suggest clients to do with their free time?

Rebecca Stern: Of course want to spend time with our kids and not feel we are missing out any special moments, but realize there is an upside to a shared parenting plan. You actually have a moment alone now and then. Seize these opportunities! Read, hike, have dinner with friends, see a good movie, check out the things you never seem to have time for, relaunch your career or do absolutely nothing! This is your time to take care of yourself.

Ilyssa Panitz: Since you are also a solution wiz in helping parents find answers, what if this scenario plays out? One side doesn’t show up for their allocated time or brings the kids back early because they can’t handle the demands and their busy schedules. What is the solution on how to handle a situation like this “AND” control your emotions when the kids are present?

Rebecca Stern: If you are attempting to co-parent with someone who isn’t going to “play by the rules”, I have one piece of advice it’s best t learn early. Think of your former spouse as IRRELEVANT. If you are in a constant state of frustration because “he was supposed to do this”, or “she never does that”, you will emotionally exhaust yourself. Instead, imagine you are the singular person your child relies upon. Then, when the other parent does show up, or show up on time, or do whatever they’re supposed to… it’s a bonus, a pleasant surprise.

Ilyssa Panitz: The holidays are upon us. Why is it important for both parents to be practical when it comes to being with the children?

Rebecca Stern: Setting clear and reasonable expectations relieves anxiety. Strong emotions are going to bubble up, especially during the holidays. Your kids are perceptive and will absorb the heightened emotion in the air. When you plan ahead, you give yourself a framework to lean on, and that relieves stress, making room for the good stuff.

Ilyssa Panitz: Why is it important for children to see and be in contact (if on the other’s watch) with both parents this time of year?

Rebecca Stern: Children thrive when they feel secure. We build trust in small moments with each other every day. If we see someone betray the confidence of another, we know better than to trust that person. Similarly, when a child sees one parent distrust the other, they question their own security with that parent. As co-parents, the more we can show kindness and generosity to one another, especially when our kids are watching, the more secure our children feel.

Ilyssa Panitz: How can a single parent build new traditions with their kids so everyone can survive and thrive?

Rebecca Stern: When a marriage ends it can be hard not to focus on how things used to be, and instead to see how things get to be. When we try to recreate all the details of an event that we used to enjoy as a couple, we’re putting a spotlight on the thing that’s different, the absence of that former partner. When we make comparisons to old traditions or what our former spouse may be doing, we get stuck so shake things up by creating new traditions. Change who hosts, where you celebrate, what time of day. Invite friends. Volunteer somewhere. Take a trip. It can be hard to conceive the idea of a new tradition. If you need a starting point, ask yourself WHY your past tradition was special to you. If you can keep the essence of why a tradition was special, and change the details, you’ll realize the power you have to create new things that are beautiful.

Ilyssa Panitz: Why is it important “NOT” to make gift giving to the children a competition?

Rebecca Stern: Because you’ll run out of money very quickly! Plus your child will feel that negative competitive energy and feel caught in the middle. The best way to handle a co-parent who may be attempting to “buy your child’s affection”, is to realize your child isn’t going to care who bought the new Air Jordan I sneakers. He’s just happy he gets to wear them. And you should be too.

Ilyssa Panitz: What was the best advice someone told you that you would like to share with people going through a divorce, especially if they have a child with special needs?

Rebecca Stern: You are not alone! Surround yourself with people who understand what you are going through, and who can offer wisdom and resources. This is hard. We can do hard things, especially when we tackle them together.

To learn more about how to juggle going through a divorce and take care of a child with special needs, tune into “The Divorce Hour with Ilyssa Panitz” on Saturday, December 11th at 1pm (EST)/10am (PST) when Rebecca will be a featured guest.

This post originally appeared on Medium