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The Florida Legislature Gets It Right For Children With Special Needs!

By Patricia Elizee, Esq.,

As a divorce attorney, I am very excited to see that the Florida Legislature is listening to Florida parents and are changing the law to protect children with special needs. Did you know that if you are currently going through a divorce in Florida or a custody dispute, as a parent, you MUST take a parenting class? Did you also know that, up until now, there was NO class required for parents of kids with special medical or psychological needs? Obviously, a divorce or a custody dispute can have a greater impact on a child with physical or mental disabilities…. So why are we not protecting these children??

This is exactly the question that Raquel Cataleno asked and kept asking until she found a way to improve the system. Raquel found herself going through a divorce in Florida and realized that the Courts had no safeguards in place for her daughter who has special needs. Raquel describes her daughter as being “amazing, beautiful, and bright”, and goes on to say that she wants her daughter to have a chance at success in school and in life. During her divorce, Raquel found the required parenting class to be “incomplete when it comes to the specific needs, leaving parents at a loss in how to manage this shared responsibility.” She turned to her local legislators and advocated on behalf of her daughter and all the other kids in Florida. Eventually, she got the ear of her local legislature. A bill was introduced and eventually passed in Tallahassee.

Bill CS/CS/DB 1532, sponsored by State Senator Lauren Book, will soon be available to divorcing and separating parents of children who have identified special needs or emotional concerns, an education program that will provide information tailored to children who have special needs or emotional concerns. The bill is set to go into effect on October 1, 2021. This is amazing news!!

The entire focus of the family law court is the “best interest of the child.” It’s amazing that it took one mother with conviction to point out an obvious gap in the system. It is in the best interest of kids with special needs that their parents are educated on how to co-parent after a break-up. Personally, I think that judges and attorneys should also be required to take training classes on how to properly manage a case with these factors. Attorneys are tasks to advocating zealously for their clients, however, as officers of the court we also have a duty to safeguard children. I would love to see attorneys trained on the limits of advocacy when it comes to the emotional and physical welfare of children. I would also love to see judges trained on how to identify families going through a divorce or custody dispute where the kids have special needs so that the Judges can make the necessary referrals and appropriate orders for the families.

Senator Lauren Book’s bill is definitely a step in the right direction for Florida. I applaud the Senator for taking on this cause. I congratulate Ms. Raquel Cataleno, a mother on a mission, who changed the law not only to benefit her daughter but for the benefit of all the kids in Florida who do not have someone fighting for them!

Patricia Elizee is the managing partner of Elizee Law Firm. She is member of the Dade County Bar Association, the Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, and the Haitian Lawyers Association.


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