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Though it may be referred to in various manners, virtual visitation is the legal term for the use of virtual tools (webcams, email, instant messengers) in parental visits; and it's making it easier for divorced parents to be an active part of their children's lives. With video-conferencing equipment becoming more affordable every day, many divorced parents are choosing virtual visitation even without its being mandated.
A huge improvement on basic phone conversations, one-on-one video conferences allow parents and children to see each other as they talk; and the options for virtual communication are both numerous and creative. Parents and children can schedule a day and time to swap emails, chat in a private chat room, play interactive games, or have live video conversations via a webcam.
Virtual visitation is an innovative and convenient option, even for parents who don't live far from each other. However, many judges and lawyers are unacquainted with it.
"I think that it is an evolution, and unfortunately, a lot of older attorneys aren't even aware that it is an option," said Cheryl Hepfer, President of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, in an Associated Press interview.
Critics of this option agree that virtual visitation is not an acceptable alternative to in-person visits and worry that courts may become lax in ordering face-to-face visits and may begin to allow more parents to relocate.
"The danger is that it will become a substitute for real time," said David L. Levy, Chief Executive of the Children's Rights Council, in a New York Times interview. "Virtual time is not real time. You can't virtually hug your child or walk your child to school. We don't want this to be seen as an excuse to encourage move-aways."
However, supporters of virtual visitation say that virtual communication should be used in conjunction with in-person visits and point out that parents who are not living with their children are more likely to pay child support if they keep in regular contact with them.
"In my experience, I have found that parents who feel connected to their children are much more invested and much more gracious," Hepfer said.
In addition, they feel that this form of communication prevents children from being exposed to fights between exes that may occur when meeting in person. Frequent virtual visitations may also help lessen the negative psychological effects many children experience after a divorce, when they are separated from one of their parents.
In the beginning, virtual visitation was viewed by courts as an option exclusively for situations in which one parent was relocating. Over the years, though, it has come to be a common option in divorces.
States where virtual visitation has been authorized in divorce cases include New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Tennessee. In most of the cases, one parent wanted to relocate and presented a plan for virtual communication; and the courts have been supportive, calling this approach innovative and viable.
Two of these cases are McCoy v. McCoy (2001) and Hernandez-Mora v. Jex (2001). In McCoy v. McCoy, a court ruled that a mother could relocate as long as virtual visits were interspersed with personal visits; and in Hernandez-Mora v. Jex, a virtual-visitation schedule was mandated because the father and child were moving overseas, while the mother stayed in the United States.
Utah was the first state to enact a virtual-visitation law (March 2004), and Wisconsin wasn't far behind. In these laws, virtual communication is defined as something to be used in conjunction with face-to-face visits, not as an alternative to them. Also, Wisconsin's law states that virtual visitation cannot be used to substantiate a parent's move.
Michael Gough was instrumental in getting virtual visitation into Utah law. A divorced father, Gough struggled to gain virtual-visitation rights in regard to his daughter, Saige. Gough is now trying to get other states to pass virtual visitation laws, and he's providing the public with information about this new option on his website, InternetVisitation.org.
The site presents visitors with information on the current virtual-visitation legislation, tips on the actual process of virtual visitation, and even a video demonstration of virtual visiting.
Currently, most judges have the power to mandate virtual visitation, but the fact that it's not included in the law keeps them from doing so. This also keeps attorneys from seeking it for their clients.
Parents and attorneys wishing to include a virtual-visitation mandate in divorce agreements should be sure to include the forms of communication with the program name (e.g., Yahoo! Messenger); the hardware, software, and Internet connection required; an allocation detailing who will pay for the Internet service and equipment; and a schedule for visitation that includes the days and times. There should also be a section specifying the amount of time that will be allowed for maintenance on the equipment before a court is authorized to step in.
Many supporters of virtual visitation are urging states to add virtual visitation to their state divorce statutes so that judges will feel comfortable mandating it. Also, adding it to the law would increase awareness of it as an option.
As technology continues to invade the modern world, virtual options for divorced families will increase; and for attorneys used to the rigorous task of navigating visitation schedules, the option of virtual visitation should be a welcome one. A low-cost alternative that allows both parents to take an active part in the lives of their children, virtual visitation is often just the option that is needed to bring about compromise.