Developmental disabilities exist across a broad spectrum. Diagnosis may occur at birth or with failures to hit benchmarks in the first years. In other instances, it may take until adolescence or even early adulthood for such a disability to become apparent. Autism in girls may go undetected until high school and schizophrenia has an average onset of late teens to early 20s for boys.
For parents of children with special needs, it can be an overwhelming process to identify deficits as well as strengths. Getting the right services in place may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a different school placement or even temporary hospitalization. The age of 18 is a milestone that shifts decision-making rights to your adult child.
When to step in
When limitations affect your child’s ability to manage his or her own personal affairs related to medical care, shelter, food and clothing, consider setting up a guardianship. Because each child and family dynamic is different, seek tailored legal advice from an experienced attorney who has handled these matters. A lawyer appointed to serve in the role as a public guardian or conservator may have added insight as well.
A child’s limitations will affect the scope of a guardianship. This does not mean that a young person no longer has any say in making important decisions, but it is a guardian’s responsibility to make sure decisions are in the protected (incapacitated) person’s best interest.
How to start the process
In Colorado, the process starts by filing a petition for guardianship in Probate Court. The court also needs a medical information statement. This is generally a letter or report from a physician or psychologist that describes specific cognitive and functional deficits, evaluates educational potential, social skills and adaptive abilities, and recommends a treatment plan.
The petition must also specify the type of guardianship and names of interested parties, the proposed guardian’s information, and treating physician details.
A court visitor will meet with the incapacitated person, the proposed guardian (if you are a parent, you might also be the petitioner asking for the guardianship) and other interested parties to determine need. A recommendation is then made to the court, which will schedule a hearing.
This is a general outline of the initial steps required to obtain a guardianship. While cases can be expedited when necessary, it usually takes several months to get the right documents together and schedule a hearing. Do not wait until an 18th birthday to seek legal assistance.