Under new child custody laws, "virtual visitation" may be changing the way children and divorced parents communicate. Read below to see how a video phone, webcam, and computer software application might change the legal landscape in family courts across the country.
"Virtual visitation", as the name implies, is a form of child visitation that requires the use of technology to keep in contact with a child -- such as through email, video conferencing, video mail, and instant messaging – typically as part of a parenting agreement or child custody order.
Requests for virtual visitation are generally made by the non-custodial parent in situations where the custodial parents seeks to relocate or move out of the area with a child --- thereby interfering with existing parental visitation rights. Virtual visitation requests may also apply to new child custody and visitation requests, including child custody and visitation in non-divorce cases and visitation requests by unmarried fathers.
Virtual Visitation Laws
Virtual visitation laws, also referred to as "internet visitation" or "electronic visitation," are a new, but growing phenomenon. Several states, including Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida, have enacted laws allowing courts to order virtual visitation in custody matters. Legislatures in many other states are currently considering passing virtual visitation laws.
Virtual visitation may also be an option in many states which don't yet have virtual visitation laws on the books. In many states such as New York, which have not passed specific virtual visitation legislation, family courts have ruled in favor of using technology to extend parental visitation rights.
Virtual visitation laws are meant to supplement, not replace, traditional in-person parent-time. These laws generally require each parent to: 1) permit and encourage virtual visits, 2) make them reasonably available and 3) allow uncensored communication with the child.
Although the telephone is still the easiest and quickest way to communicate, the more technologically advanced ways to engage in virtual visits may include standard electronic communication tools (such as email and instant messaging), webcams, video conferencing, private document sites, social media sites (such as Facebook, Myspace, and Yahoogroups.com), and photo-sharing sites (such as Shutterfly, Picasa, and Kodak Gallery).
Like other child visitation arrangements, courts will consider the best interest of the child in determining whether to allow parent-child virtual visitation.
In addition, because virtual visitation is similar to traditional visitation, a court will not likely afford virtual visitation if regular visitation would not have been granted.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to virtual visitation. Because of the growing number of divorced parents sharing custody of their children, virtual visitation provides potentially far-reaching benefits to enrich the parent-child relationship. Not only can parents become more involved in their children's lives, despite the distance, parents and children may arguably become better people.
Some of the examples of how virtual visitation may be used to benefit the parent-child relationship include:
- Reading a child a bedtime story;
- Helping with homework or a special project;
- Seeing subtle facial expressions of a parent or child, such as a smile or frown;
- A child showing a parent missing teeth, an award, or other special accomplishment;
- Connecting on social media sites as a way to talk about day-to-day occurrences; and possibly,
- Witnessing sporting events, piano recitals, and other events live as they are happening.
On the other hand, while instant messaging and other forms of electronic communication may be beneficial in those cases where the non-custodial parent is physically absent, some believe that virtual visitation may be viewed as a replacement, and not supplement, for regular in-person child visits. In addition, some fear that judges may be improperly influenced by parents seeking to move away from the ex-spouse in situations that would not otherwise warrant child custody relocation.
Virtual visitation laws have the potential to change the child custody legal landscape. Not only will the laws create new channels of communication between a parent and child in child custody matters, virtual visitation may allow parents to participate more fully in a child's life. Even though the availability of virtual visitation may lessen the shock when a parent moves away, virtual visits should never be viewed as a replacement for quality face-to-face time with a child.
If you, or a loved one, are considering virtual visitation as part of a child custody parenting plan or divorce decree, you may wish to speak with a divorce or child custody lawyer who may help educate you on the virtual visitation laws that may be available in your state.