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Will Virtual Visitation Become the New Child Custody Norm?

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For most of us, the internet has been seeping into the cracks of our personal lives for quite some time now.  But not all of us anticipated just how far reaching such technology could be.  To illustrate, a growing legal trend now grants non-custodial parents visitation rights with their children over the internet through webcam video conferencing.

This is called “virtual visitation”, also known as “e-visitation” or “e-access”, and it is slowly but surely gaining momentum in states around the nation.  It began in Utah back in 2004 and is currently available in five other states: Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.  Over 20 states are currently contemplating virtual visitation laws.

Virtual visitation allows the parent to contact their child via webcam rather than the traditional physical transfer of custody.  This would allow parents to increase the amount of contact when they are separated from the child.  Virtual visitation usually refers to video communications, but statutes may also include other mediums such as texting, instant messaging, e-mail, and phone calls.  It is particularly helpful in circumstances where the parents are separated by long distances.

Now, virtual visitation is not meant to replace traditional visitation where the parent and child actually spend time in each other’s presence.  It is treated more as a form of supplementation that is intended to keep the parent and child updated with one another.  It is up to the court’s discretion as to whether or not they will allow virtual visitation.  In one case, a New York judge even ordered “Skype visits” as a condition of the mother’s move to another location.

So, is virtual visitation ideal for everyone?  When is it considered to be a good option?  Here are a few of the pros and cons of virtual visitation:

Pros:

A growing need for more contact:  Parents in general (not just those affected by divorce or separation) have less time to devote to quality time with their children.  This is mostly due to issues related to work: a bustling workday, long commutes and traffic, and multiple jobs can all cut into a parent’s free time.  This is especially true of separate parents, who must often travel even further just to see their child.  Virtual visitation is a way for many parents to share time with a child when they cannot otherwise do so.

Accessibility of technology:  Previously, web cam chatting was sparse and faulty at best.  Slow download speeds, choppy images, and frequently interrupted connections made video conferencing difficult.  Now, web cam applications are becoming more affordable and the overall experience is more enjoyable.  Smart phone applications can also make virtual visitation easier (although some skeptics predict that the iPhone 4’s Face Time feature may eventually flop).

For many children and youths, virtual relationships are the norm:  It can be argued that chatting via webcam is not the ideal way to raise a child, which I certainly agree with.  Certainly nothing can replace personal, face-to-face social interaction.  However, a good percentage of children already maintain several virtual relationships online, mostly with friends and classmates.  Further, it can easily be said that some children interact with their peers online more than they do in person.

Thus, virtual visitation can be seen as a way of “leveling” with the child, or in other words, meeting them on their own turf.  For the parents and older generations, the internet is a new invention, a novelty that took their lives by storm.  However, for the children, the internet is a basic staple of their lives, something that they were born into (just like *real* books and toys were for us).  So, virtual visitation might not actually be as much of an adjustment for the child as it will be for the parent.  For the child it can be compared welcoming a person into your own personal arena or zone.

Some Cons of virtual visitation:

Lack of uniform rules:  Only a handful of states actually grant virtual visitation.  Of the ones that do, the network of laws governing virtual visitation are vague and inconsistent.  Many statutes simply list electronic communication as an acceptable method of visitation.  The laws do not address such specific issues like how long the virtual visitation is supposed to last, when it can be done, by which parents, and when virtual appointments should be made.  This can lead to conflicts in scheduling between parents.  One parent even complained that constant attempts to videochat by the other parent were cutting into her own private time with the child.

Virtual visitation allows for only limited interaction:   Parents who engage in virtual visitation are severely limited in terms of what they can do with their child during an online “visit”.  You cannot help a kid tie their shoes, play catch with them, or dress a wound over the internet.  Probably the most useful activity that can happen is for the parent to help their child with homework while they’re both on the computer.

So, what does the future have in store for virtual visitation?  Where is all this leading to?  Will courts address other internet issues such as parents “friending” their kids on Facebook?  Will bonds be forged through online gaming? (“What’s your Gamertag, son?”)

Personally I am all for virtual visitation.  In my opinion, more interaction is always better than less.  And bear in mind that for some children whose parents aren’t legally separated (such as those whose parents are overseas), Skype time is how they communicate with their parents.  I’ve been ranting for some time now about how slow courts can be to keep pace with technology.  But in this case, it appears that the judicial system is doing its best to keep uploaded, I mean, updated.

***For parents who are interested in learning more about virtual visitation, there are an abundance of resources available at www.internetvisitation.org.***

Jay Rivera

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