Proponents of the Web cam option seek to get it included in custody agreements and in state custody laws.
But not everyone is ready for it.
Instead of counting the months until she would see her son each summer, Carrie Hammond needed only count the hours until Kegan’s face would light up her computer screen. Though Kegan, 6, was in Tennessee with his father, and Hammond, 27, lived in San Marcos, the two were participating in virtual visitation as part of the family’s child-custody agreement by making video calls via Web cameras. "It’s been instrumental in keeping the relationship strong," Hammond said, recalling their hours-long, twice-weekly Web cam sessions.
Recently, Kegan chose to move in with Hammond, a decision she attributes to the emotional closeness the Web cams afforded them for four years.
Virtual visitation is becoming a popular way to incorporate the potential of modern technology into the lives of parents and children separated by divorce and distance. Utah, Wisconsin and most recently, Missouri, have made virtual visitation state law, and several other state legislatures, including those in California and Ohio, are considering making it a formal supplement to physical custody arrangements.
Due to the relative newness of the technology, family law courts have been slow to embrace the communication medium that many adults and teens already are using recreationally. Michael Gough, a Wisconsin-based computer security consultant for a Fortune 500 company and a divorced father of one, wants to bring virtual visitation into the mainstream to promote parental involvement by noncustodial moms and dads.
InternetVisitation.org is a guide Gough created for parents seeking information about computer-assisted visitation. He is working on virtual visitation bills for California and Ohio, and is in talks with state lawmakers to sponsor them. Orange County divorce lawyer Jeffrey Lalloway, who is helping draft the California bill, already incorporates Web cameras and text messaging into several of his clients’ custody arrangements.
In California and other states where virtual visitation has not yet been codified, this type of visitation must either be approved by a judge, or both ex-spouses must come to an agreement allowing the non-custodial parent to contact the child via computer.
"Physical contact is still crucially important for a child. If you can supplement that with Instant Messaging, e-mail, on the computer screen, that’s great. Any contact is always better than no contact," Lalloway said.
Not everyone is ready to embrace computer-assisted custody visits, however. The Children’s Rights Council, headquartered in Hyattsville, Md., opposes virtual visitation. Chief executive David L. Levy has said he fears it would become a substitute for physical contact. The Utah, Wisconsin and Missouri laws specifically state that virtual visits may not be used in place of personal visits, nor should they justify one parent’s relocation.
A San Fernando Valley native, Gough moved to Utah and eventually Wisconsin to be close to his daughter, Saige, and is adamant that the language of each bill contain the move-away clause. "I would personally oppose the bill if it didn’t," he said. Gough and his wife filed for divorce in Utah. Already familiar with the benefits of Web cams, Gough asked the court for virtual visitation time in addition to his scheduled visits with his daughter. Though he said initially his ex-wife was not cooperative with the request, the biggest obstacle was the judge’s commitment to the status quo. "The judge in my case said, ‘If it’s not state law, if there’s no case law, don’t ask for it. I’m not doing it.’"
According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 136 million American adults use the Internet and 87 percent of children ages 12 to 17 are online. But only a little more than half of adults in their 60s, and 21 percent of those 70 and older go online. Gough said he saw these generational differences at play in the courtroom. "There’s a gap between those who know the technology, and those who don’t," he said.
Lalloway echoed Gough’s observation. "Many judges don’t know what [virtual visitation] is," Lalloway said. "They tend to be older, and they may not know or understand what Web cams might be." To persuade the judge presiding over his case, Gough performed a demonstration of the technology’s clarity and utility. He lugged two laptop computers, two Web cams and a long cable to the courtroom and linked up a video call between the judge and Gough’s mother, whom he described as "totally computer illiterate." "It cost me $5,000 to demonstrate that," Gough said. "I told my lawyer, ‘That was stupid to have to go through that.’" But the judge approved his request. Only later did Gough realize formal legislation would enable other parents to apply for virtual visitation without forking over wads of cash or combating the whims or biases of a particular judge.
Christina Howell, 35, of Long Beach, has thus far been unsuccessful in her personal battle to visit her kids virtually. Though she speaks with each of them on the phone practically every day and visits them every two months, Tim, 11, Patrick, 9, and Erin, 8, live in Oak Park, Ill. with their father, who will not agree to virtual visitation. A while back, Howell purchased two Web cams, one for her, one for her kids, but the devices remain in their original boxes because virtual visitation is not written into their official custody agreement. For now, the cameras sit in her garage, untouched, but Howell said she hopes one day soon to rip into their packaging, plug them in and see three smiling faces.
After she lost custody of her children in a particularly painful divorce and was a victim of massive post-9-11 layoffs at SBC, Howell said, she returned from Illinois to her native Southern California after being recruited by the Walt Disney Co. in 2003. Though she is more than 2,000 miles away from her children, she said every day still revolves around Tim, Patrick and Erin. "I call my children every night at 5 o’clock. My world stops." She said the conversations are structured. "We do ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ each day, to find out how their day went. They do two ‘lows’ and the rest can be ‘highs,’" she said. "That way we always end on a high note."
But Howell said she wishes she could talk about sports and give girl advice to Tim face-to-face. She would love to discuss Patrick’s favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, or help him with homework virtually. And she would be thrilled to watch Erin read Cinderella aloud. In the meantime, Howell is not complaining, just glad she can do all of the above by telephone at least. "It’s OK," she said. "It’s a struggle, but I have to say, my children live for those phone calls … I try to keep things alive, together, fresh and positive." She has decided to take action, however. Howell is looking forward to helping Illinois State Rep. Ruth Munson pass a virtual visitation bill in her kids’ home state. "If she needs parents to testify, sign a bill … I’ll give her whatever she wants," Howell said.
Gough said the option of virtual visitation in addition to personal contact is in the best interest of children separated from a parent. "This is a tool for the children. Clearly it’s beneficial for non- custodial parents because they have the least amount of time," he said, speaking from his own experience. Gough’s job initially kept him in Utah when his wife left for Wisconsin, but he said the Web cam time "sucked me back into my daughter’s life." "It works because the child knows he or she hasn’t been abandoned," he said, while the parent feels emotionally closer to the child.
Hammond, of San Marcos, also credits the technology with preserving her relationship with her son. Kegan was 2 1/2 when Hammond moved to California, but as he’s grown, so have the number of online activities they can enjoy together. At first, when they switched on the Web cams, Hammond said she would read to her son, talk with him about his day and discuss behavioral issues. When Kegan turned 4, they started playing online checkers. Eventually, Kegan read while his mom listened. Hammond especially cherishes "special moments," she said, such as when Kegan typed his first words: "dog" and "God." "I (took) these snapshots every now and then of our Web cam conversations when something important happens, just like you would when you see your child do something in person," she said.
However, Hammond is adamant that virtual visitation is not a replacement for parents spending time with their children, just a bonus. "It was just incredible for my son and I. It definitely made being apart bearable."