Virtual Visitation, Child Custody, and Technology

There are many reasons why a parent would relocate to another community or even to another state. With the economic challenges that many people face today, it is not unusual for a parent to cite employment opportunities as the primary reason for the move. Whatever the reasons, when the custodial parent wishes to relocate out-of-state or plans to move 100 miles away within Arizona, a 60-day notice of the proposed move away must be given to the noncustodial parent who may then petition to prevent relocation of the child.

When relocation occurs, there are ways for the remaining parent to make up for some of the lost parenting time with his or her child. One of those ways is through virtual visitation, or e-visitation.

There are no substitutes for in-person contact between a parent and child. However, in a relocation case, the noncustodial parent can request that the court order enhanced internet communications with the use of computer technology. That is, communications are improved with email, text messaging, and webcam conferences. Improved communications technology creates a virtual visitation experience well beyond that of a faceless telephone call.

Even when relocation is not the issue, but the parents live in different cities or towns, the child may suffer for lack of regularized communication with the noncustodial parent. Communication has traditionally been a telephone call, often placed at the same time every day. But it could also be a video conference allowing the parent and child to see each other, interact in activities, and witness each other’s demeanor.

In some states, when it is determined to be in the best interests of the child, the custodial parents are being ordered to participate in e-visitation. This is accomplished through the use of internet services such as Skype, iChat, Facetime, and Google Voice, to name a few. Not only do these technologies create a real time audio-visual experience, many parents have found that the length of their communications double or triple because the child remains fully engaged throughout the entire session.

Furthermore, e-visitation encourages more frequent communications between the child and the noncustodial parent. Most children adjust easily to the use of technology. An online parent-child conversation, complete with video, can be a more meaningful, more productive, and a more satisfying experience for both. The noncustodial parent can see the child growing up during the early years, when child development is rapid. The child may experience significantly less separation anxiety, feelings of abandonment, or sadness by being able to see the other parent’s face. All in all, virtual visitation is, for many families, a far better solution to the detached voice on the end of a telephone.

Planning Virtual Visitation

Family courts across the country are including virtual visitation and electronic communication provisions in child custody orders. North Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, and Florida have legislated e-visitation. For the most part, virtual visitation is a supplementary form of parent-child communication and is not intended to be a substitute or replacement for face-to-face interaction. The time for virtual visitation does not reduce the noncustodial parent’s child support obligation, and is not a justification for the custodial parent’s relocation.

Virtual visitation is intended to enhance parenting time, not replace it. Nothing can replace a warm hug, a walk in the park, or Friday night pizza and a movie. But parents do need to make the most of the situation. If the judge determines that relocation is in the child’s best interests, then the next step should involve a discussion of virtual visitation for the noncustodial parent so that he or she can maintain and build a positive and enduring relationship with the child.

Experiencing Virtual Visitation.

To get the greatest benefit, parents need to be creative and embrace this now readily available technology. Although it may seem strange at first, e-visitation can mean reading children’s books, helping with homework, and playing interactive games together. Provisions regarding all of these activities may be included in the court’s virtual visitation order.

Some of the issues that the parents must work through and include in their e-visitation agreement are:

  • How many sessions per week?
  • Which days of the week?
  • What time of day?
  • How long will each session last?
  • Which parent provides the equipment at each location?
  • Which parent pays for the high speed internet connection at each location?
  • Which parent pays for system repairs at each location?
  • Which parent pays for periodic system upgrades at each location?

Here is what the court’s virtual visitation order should include:

  • The form of visitation, such as video conferencing, video phone, instant messaging, and email.
  • The equipment required to conduct the sessions.
  • The system installation details and which party is responsible for installation and training as needed at each end.
  • What each parent will pay for, as in the equipment, high speed internet connection, repairs, service charges, replacement and upgrades.
  • Schedule for virtual sessions, as in days of the week, times of the day, duration of each session, and limits on number of contacts per day or week.
  • Requirement that equipment be ON and ready when each session is scheduled to begin.
  • Identify the parent who will initiate each session.