Virtual Visitation: A Sensible Child Custody Option
Law must come to grips with the new reality of what it means to be a family
Sunday, April 15, 2012
(San Diego) – After a divorce, it isn’t uncommon for a job opportunity, family ties or a new relationship to cause one parent to move. When there are children involved, the parent without primary physical custody becomes separated from his or her children. The relationship is likely to suffer, and the non-custodial parent struggles to stay a part of their lives. Both the parent and the children suffer.
According to a report for the National Center for State Courts, an estimated 18 million children have separated or divorced parents, and the parents of 17 million more children have never been married. One out of four of these children have a parent living in a different city. Within four years after separation or divorce, 75% of [single] mothers will relocate at least once, and of that number over half will do so again. As a result, close to 10 million children do not have regular face-to-face interaction with one of their parents.
Technology now provides a way for some divorced or separated parents to stay in touch with their kids and maintain their relationships. Thanks to simple tools like texting and email, social media like Facebook, and video hookups with webcams and Skype, “virtual visitation” can make long-distance parenting much easier.
Family courts use the term “virtual visitation” under the law in a specific way, to refer to the right of a noncustodial parent to have electronic communication with his or her children. The first virtual visitation cases appeared in the late 1990s as technology started making this option viable.
Now parents have the right to this type of visitation in some states. Utah enacted the first electronic visitation law; Illinois was the most recent state where virtual visitation became law in 2010. So far six states have laws on the books covering “virtual” or “electronic” visitation rights: Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin are the other four. Twenty-two more states now have efforts underway at various stages in the process to add similar laws.
In general, when one parent moves away from another and there is a virtual visitation law in place, family law judges have the authority to award communication through electronic means as part of visitation arrangements to the non-custodial parent. The court may decide the frequency and duration as a part of a parenting plan. There are protections in the event of physical or emotional abuse, and prohibiting any use or display that would be harmful to the child’s current mental, physical or emotional health.
Advocates say for many parents, virtual visitation provides a wonderful way to strengthen the bond between parents and their children. Advocates point out that virtual visitation is not meant to replace face-to-face contact, but to supplement it between visits during holidays and summer breaks so the noncustodial parent is involved in the small, important everyday details of a child’s life like showing off a good report card, a new haircut or lost tooth, or a favorite new toy.
But there are critics who say the law gives some noncustodial parents an excuse to move away, using the promise of virtual visitation to get approval from the court to relocate.
There have also been instances where virtual visitation has been used by one parent to “spy” on another. During visits, noncustodial parents can ask kids open up closets in the room, or walk around the house with a webcam running on a laptop to see if there are clues about a custodial parent having a new boyfriend or girlfriend.
“The truth is that in so many areas of our lives, the technological genie is out of the bottle,” said Myra Chack Fleischer, lead counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby. “For our children, the use of video technology and social media for distance communication isn’t anything unusual. It’s just a fact of life. It’s the court system that needs to learn to keep up. Technological advancements of the Internet and communication tools will continue to play an increasingly important part in custody and visitation cases.”
But with this in mind, Fleischer says family law courts must continue to employ the same high standards keeping the best interests of the child at the center of any decisions about virtual visitation while finding new ways to create fresh outcomes for how parents and children communicate when they are apart.
“No matter what the distance or the reason for it, virtual visitation is a realistic option. It not only gives a child the psychological benefit of constant contact with a distant parent, but it also improves the parent-child relationship, allows for more committed parenting and makes living in separate houses less stressful for all involved,” said Fleischer.
If you are a parent going through a divorce or one wrestling with child custody challenges, virtual visitation is an option you may want to consider. Discuss options with a family law attorney who can help you come up with a list of creative alternatives to physical custody that are in the best interests of their children and meet any legal requirements or other parenting goals. Being a “cyberparent” may be the solution to maintaining parental contact with a child between physical visits.