Are you a divorced parent that lives a distance away from your children? Are you a divorce parent that travels out of town frequently for their work? Is your parenting time supervised? Are you a divorced parent that would simply like to communicate with your children more regularly?
Regardless of the reason, when one parent is separated from a child, it can cause a great disruption in their young lives. Children do not always understand why one parent must relocate or why on parent must have supervised visits. What they remember is that one of their parents is no longer there. With the creation of the Internet and expanding technology, parents in these situations may now be afforded innovative and creative opportunities to remain a larger part of their children’s lives. This is often called “Virtual Visitation,” “Virtual Parent-Time”, “Internet Visitation”, and “Computer Visitation.”
All of these terms refer to connecting with children over the Internet. It can refer to e-mail contact, instant messaging programs, or video and voice conferencing. Certainly, connecting with your child through a computer does not replace personal contact. However, it serves as an effective bridge for parents when frequent personal contact is not possible. With regard to supervised visits, it also serves as a safe medium where contact can be innocuously monitored if necessary. Although virtual visitation has not yet been widely embraced by Courts or Judges, it is coming. In 2002, a Massachusetts trial court approved “Internet visitation.” (Cleri v. Cleri, Massachusetts Probate & Family Court, No. 01D-0009-D1.)
In that case, Judge Chouteau Merrill allowed Mrs. Cleri to move from Massachusetts to Long Island, New York. The unusual part of the case is that the Judge also ordered virtual visitation between Mr. Cleri and the three children, a five-year-old and two-year-old twins. Additionally, state legislatures have already begun to act. On March 23rd, 2004, Utah enacted the country’s first “Virtual Visitation” Law. Several states have followed suit including the State of Wisconsin which allows a Judge to allow computer contact with children when that contact is advisable in the Judge’s discretion. The benefits of computerized parenting time are numerous. First, and perhaps foremost, computer visitation may reduce the psychological impact of separation on a child. Most psychologists will tell you that children often blame themselves when one parent is absent from the family unit. They experience significant separation anxiety and may even internalize that anxiety as guilt or feelings of abandonment. These children often experience serious behavioral problems that can haunt them throughout their childhood. There are many types of virtual visitation. Any form is possible so long as the technology is reasonably affordable to the parties. Forms of virtual visitation include:
- E-Mail. E-mail is the oldest and, perhaps most common form of computerized communication. What it lacks, however, is the real time interaction with a child.
- Instant Message Programs. A form of real time interaction includes instant message programs. These programs function like a chat room allowing each party to type messages to the other that can be seen as soon as the message is posted in real time. The benefit of these programs is that they can alert a person when another participant is online. It has the potential to allow parents to spontaneously communicate with their children in addition to having regularly scheduled contact. The drawback to instant message programs is that they may limit contact to those children that are old enough to spell and type messages. Common instant message programs include Yahoo Instant Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Instant Messenger, ICQ to name only a few.
- Personal Video Conferencing or a Video Calls. Many of the instant message programs previously mentioned are currently integrating video conferencing and voice conferencing into their programs. This means that two people in two different locations may communicate in real time by voice and video. This type of virtual visitation does require additional equipment, however, including a high-speed connection (like DSL or a Cable Modem), a webcam, a headset, a microphone, and the proper software. Once these are in place, you are able to have a completely interactive video phone call where you can SEE as well as hear each other with real video that is clear and audio that is as good as a telephone call.
Video calls allow parents to interact with their children in many ways that are preferable to the other methods. By video conference, a parent can see the subtle changes in their children as they grow. They can see their expressions and their emotions. Through video conferencing a parent may even assist their children with their homework, play games or appreciate their latest art project. If you decide to include “Virtual Visitation” as a part of your parenting time order or if you’re seeking an order of the court imposing that obligation after divorce, you may wish to include language that is specific and identifies:
- The precise form(s) of “Virtual Visitation” that you will use even including the program (video conference, email, Video Mail, Yahoo Instant Messaging, MSN Instant Messaging, etc.)
- The equipment necessary including both hardware and software and the type of Internet connection.
- Who pays for the Internet service or equipment. If you believe there may be an objection to the cost you may consider offering to purchase the equipment yourself for the other parent’s use.
- The Schedule for the virtual visitation including the specific days of the week and times of day. If equipment malfunctions or breaks, what time period is allowed for computer repair before court sanctions are triggered.