Surviving Divorce With a Child With FASD

This article does not contain legal advice. The Network knows that divorce happens in many families. Most persons who are touched by it are fine; and some are better off emotionally.

However, whenever disability challenges any child in a family, special care must be taken to anticipate their present and future needs even more than parents would take for non-disabled children.

Even if divorce ends up being “for the best”, and even if the two parents communicate openly and honestly and continue their pre-divorce responsibilities for their disabled child (ren) during and following divorce, the changes are stressful for the adults and the child(ren). The changes associated with parents divorcing may destroy the stable environment parents have built to protect their child(ren) with additional or exceptional needs, including FASD.

image of father carrying son

Remember, divorce also affects one’s relationship with a whole community of people that are part of the family’s “circle of support.” 

The divorcing parent and their child with FASD will need people from this community more and more as they get older, as FASD affects different phases of an individual’s life, and as the affected child is expected to interact with more people, without the parent’s presence, and as their activities expand and change. 

Often, people in this community are anxious about their roles and connection to the family during the process that leads to the divorce decree, and following it, especially as it affects the divorcees’ abilities to parent their disabled child, unless both have a plan that they are willing to support. 

The attorney or divorce advocate working with divorcing parents must have enough information about how the challenges of FASD become more, not less complex as the child gets older. They must take these issues seriously and guide the couple through the “worst case scenarios” that, if the couple were still together, the two would deal with together. The legal representative must know that some individuals with FASD may never be fully able to live and work independently, and that the primary custodial parent may need financial support to parent them adequately long after they turn 18. 

Foremost among the support community that can help take off some of the stress of the inevitable crises that will likely occur as the child with FASD grows up will be the families of both parents. 

Consider adding “grandparental access” (“aunt/uncle/cousin access”, etc.) to the child(ren) (and the child(ren)’s access to them), plans for holidays or extended visits with each other’s families, and how to maintain a positive relationship with relatives, to the list of topics to resolve during the settlement process. 

The divorcing parents need to make sure of setting agreeable terms and conditions for communicating with toxic members of the ex’s family whom they  didn’t get along with, and making sure that they don’t disappear out of the disabled child’s life altogether after the divorce, if they have been a part of it in a positive way before the divorce — and based on under whose roof the child is spending time. 

And then, for those people in groups named below, address how to continue things that the child(ren) (and the parents) benefited from; for example, godparents, a couple that is asked to be the child’s legal guardians in the event of the deaths of both parents, those who invited the child(ren) to come along with them to the park, the community swimming pool, etc., those who have something special at their home or business (for example, horses, or a fantastic model train setup) that the child(ren) likes to visit, someone whose son or daughter would babysit the child(ren), and so on. These important people include: 

the divorced couple’s individual and mutual friends; 

friends in the community (such as from a shared hobby, a shared faith, people in the neighborhood, members of an adoptive, foster, or FASD parenting group, other “special needs parents,” from the child’s school, and so on. 

Aside from putting some thought into maintaining these human support resources post-divorce, research things that can help individuals with FASD in planning for events that may happen in the future that the divorcing couple would have talked about together had they not been divorced. These include topics such as special needs summer camps, after-school childcare, support animals, academic tutors, guitar lessons, religious events such as a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation, or other special resources. 

There should be specific items, or categories of items, such as educational supports, social skills supports, etc., that the attorney should insist upon during settlement discussions that need to be added to a support budget for when the time comes, so that the amount of child or spousal support doesn’t shrink as the child with FASD gets older. The attorney needs to be able to document future anticipated costs. 

Enough information needs to be provided to influence the family law judge to avoid ruling that, as soon as the young FASD-affected child is in school all day, the caregiving parent must find a part-time job, or must get training so they can work while (s)he is in school; and so the non-custodial parent’s financial obligations don’t shrink just when the costs associated with raising a child with FASD start to increase. 

Marriage difficulties and divorce are quite common in families that have one or more children with a disability. Establishing and maintaining a community of support will help immensely during these rough times.