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Brooklyn Bar Association CLE covers lawyer’s role in representing autistic children in divorce

April 3, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A recent Brooklyn Bar Association continuing legal education (CLE) seminar on what attorneys need to know when a special needs child is involved in a divorce proceeding featured attorneys David Chidekel, Randi Karmel and Steve Cohn (left to right). Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Divorce is tricky, and it gets much more complicated when a special needs child is involved, which is why the Brooklyn Bar Association’s (BBA) Family Law Section hosted a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar with three well-respected attorneys in Brooklyn Heights last Wednesday.

The CLE was titled “A Special Needs Child (Focus on Autism) in a Divorce: What the Attorneys Must Know and Do and the Role of the Attorney for the Child” and featured attorneys David M. Chidekel, Steven D. Cohn and Randi L. Karmel, vice chair of the BBA’s Family Law Section.

“Divorce and custody cases are difficult and emotional and when you have a child in the autism spectrum, it becomes that more difficult,” said Cohn. “Autistic children need continuity and repetition.”

The lecture was broken up into three sections during which Cohn discussed the approach to setting up visitation between divorcing couples when an autistic child is involved. Karmel, who has served as an appointed attorney for children, discussed her role when the judge appoints her and empowers her to act on behalf of the child. Chidekel reviewed the latest cases in this area of law.

“My role varies depending on if the child can speak or not to tell me his or her wishes,” Karmel explained. “If the child can tell me his or her wishes, I have to advocate that unless it would pose an imminent risk of abuse.

“So, if I child tells me, ‘I want to live with mommy,’ but mommy seriously cannot take care of the child — they’re a serious drug addict, or something along those lines — I can say, ‘The child wants to live with their mother, but this is what’s actually in the child’s best interest,’” Karmel continued.

Karmel went on to explain that children with autism who cannot speak are often treated similarly to infants, where the attorney is acting almost as a guardian ad litem rather than as an attorney for the child because they cannot advocate for themselves.

Karmel explained that CLEs like this are necessary because there are so many things involved in taking care of and planning for special needs children and attorneys don’t always know what their role is.

“I think that people have many cases where people come in and say, ‘My kid can’t go to one school, they have to go to a private school,’” Karmel said. “Who is taking care of this child’s special needs? Who is the one who is setting up appointments? It’s not just going to baseball practice, it’s everything.”

The BBA has two more CLEs scheduled for April. The first, on April 17, is titled “Hot Topics in Ethics 2017: Privilege, Fees, Conflicts, Social Media, Disciplinary Complaints and More” and will feature attorneys Michael Ross and Clifford Robert. Another on April 24 is titled “Small Claims Arbitrator Training,” with court attorney and special referee Paul V. Nuccio. Both CLEs begin at 6 p.m. at the BBA building.


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