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Family law judges have a new tool in their toolbox to help divorced parents stay in contact with their children. More and more judges are turning to virtual visitation, or e-visitation, as a supplement to regular visitation for non-custodial parents. This rise in the use of Skype and other web-chat services will allow parents to stay in contact with their children in a way that improves on the "old fashioned" telephone.
Virtual visitation is not something that judges are using just in tech hot spots like Silicon Valley or Manhattan. According to an article in FindLaw's Writ, courts in Utah and Sufflolk County, N.Y. have ordered e-visitation, but the option is also currently available in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin as well.
According to the article by University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry, the recent New York case of Baker v. Baker is a good example of the benefits of a virtual visitation order. In that case, a Long Island mother was forced by economic circumstances to move with her two children to Florida, where she had family and other resources. As a condition of her move, the judge ordered she make the children available for Skype chats with their father.
The economic realities facing the mother in the Baker case are all too common and will no doubt help drive the increase in the use of virtual visitation. Facing foreclosure and still seeking work as a bookkeeper, Ms. Baker had no choice but to move her children far from their father, a move which he opposed. However Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo granted the father more than virtual visitation with his children, he allowed visits during school vacations as well.
This raises another concern with e-visitation: web-chats are no substitute for face-to-face parenting. Judges will have to carefully balance when to permit distant moves by a custodial parent. Non-custodial parents are likely to be opposed to such a reliance on virtual visitation.
Orders for e-visitation, like all family court decisions, need to be in the best interest of the child. As noted in the Writ article, abusive parents or parents who were denied custody for criminal behavior should not view e-visitation as a way to see a child they are otherwise prohibited from meeting. In this way, courts may consider denying virtual visitation if they would not grant actual visitation rights to the parent. Courts will likely proceed with caution as they bring parental visitation rights up to the speed of tech.