No Virtue in Virtual Visitation

By Dianna Thompson and Glenn Sacks

This week’s "virtual visitation" ruling by a Massachusetts court points to a new and dangerous trend in family law--judges permitting mothers to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers, and justifying the separation by ordering Internet video conferencing as a purported substitute for a father’s time with his children.

In her ruling, Judge E. Chouteau Merrill awarded a Boston-area woman sole custody of her three small children, and gave her permission to move the children 225 miles away. Merrill granted two weekend visits a month to Paul, the ex-husband and father of the couple’s five year-old son and twin two year-old daughters. The children will be moved to Long Island, New York.

Paul’s standard weekday visitation was replaced by ’’virtual visits’’ on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. Merrill explained that the computer conferences are relatively cheap and will allow Paul to read to his children and help them with their homework.

According to Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, virtual visitation is the "cutting edge of divorce law" and will "become accepted and possibly even commonplace over the next few years."

Hundreds of thousands of divorced dads like Paul are victims of "Move Away Moms" who either do not value their children’s relationships with their fathers, place their own needs above those of their children, or use geography as a method of driving fathers out of their children’s lives. The misplaced use of virtual visitation as a rationalization for the troubled consciences of both move away moms and family court judges will exacerbate the problem.

In one highly publicized case, a self-deluded mother said that virtual visitation allowed her to "feel more comfortable that I’m not destroying my son’s relationship with his father" by deciding to move away. It seems unlikely that, were the situations reversed, she would be happy with biweekly virtual visitations.

Even if one accepts the Merrill ruling’s dubious rationale, virtual visitation opens up endless opportunities for interference by custodial parents. Today many divorced dads endure the heartache of being told that they cannot see their children because they always have "dentist appointments" or "birthday parties to attend" during their scheduled visitation times. In the era of virtual visitation, there will be an inordinately large number of technical problems with custodial parents’ web cameras, and the repair shops will be operating at an unusually slow pace.

When such interference occurs, divorced dads’ only recourse will be to scrape together the money to go back to court. However, it is doubtful that many judges will be willing to hold a mother in contempt of court for not fixing her computer.

In addition, for Paul (and other fathers of young children), the video conferencing will be almost impossible to do without the presence and assistance of Paul’s ex-wife. No doubt he does not want to share what few precious moments he has with his children with the woman who took them so far away from him.

Nor can Paul and men like him easily move to be closer to his children. Paul bears a child support burden of nearly $2,000 a month (perhaps he should ask Judge Merrill if he can pay "virtual child support") and could easily fall behind if he moves to New York and cannot quickly find a well-paying job. Because Massachusetts noncustodial parents with past-due child support are assessed interest at 12% annually, as well as penalties at 6% annually, arrearages mount rapidly. And even if Paul does move to New York, there is no guarantee that his ex-wife will let him see his children, and getting courts to enforce visitation rights is often difficult.

Despite the approval of many judges, legal experts, and women’s advocates (who oppose laws restricting a custodial mother’s right to move her children), this Orwellian Massachusetts ruling serves only to divide fathers from their children. As one divorced dad noted:

"I want to hug my children, not wave to them through a computer screen. Virtual visitation sounds a lot like visiting from the inside of a jail cell. No--in a jail cell you can stick your arm out between the bars and hold your child’s hand. A ‘virtual dad’ can’t even do that."