by Tresa Baldas | Monday, Aug 24, 2009
A virtual visitation movement is gaining steam as several states have passed or are considering laws that provide for computer-assisted custody visits between children and distant parents.
Illinois on Aug. 21 became the sixth state to pass virtual visitation legislation that permits judges to order divorcing couples to make computer visits — often via webcam — part of their child custody agreements. Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin have similar laws on the books, all passed in recent years. Virtual visitation bills are pending in Missouri and Ohio. And there’s apparent interest in legislatures in 22 other states.
Family law attorney Jeffrey Leving, who oversees the Illinois Council on Responsible Fatherhood, a state agency, and helped draft the legislation, said mandatory virtual visitation is sorely needed. He said too many noncustodial parents — particularly low-income fathers — don’t get to see their children enough.
“Forty percent of children in father-absent homes haven’t seen them at all in the past year. That will change with this new law,” said Leving of the Law Offices of Jeffrey M. Leving in Chicago.
He noted that the virtual visitation option is especially valuable when children are removed from one jurisdiction to another. “With virtual visitation, you could have a parent in Chicago with daily video conferencing with a child in Hong Kong. And now, judges can order this type of contact,” he said.
Leving helped draft another new custody-related law that amended Illinois’ Paternity Act to require that both parties be informed of their right to DNA testing before any adjudication of paternity is made. The measure, which took effect Aug. 21, also made it a criminal offense for one parent to deny the other parent the custody or parenting time previously agreed to or granted by the court.
Lynne Gold-Bikin, the past chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s Section of Family Law, offered both praise and criticism of the new Illinois laws.
Mandating virtual visitation is “a great idea,” said Gold-Bikin, who heads the family law practice at Philadelphia’s Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby. She noted that virtual visitation laws generally come into play with feuding parents. “This is basically saying, ‘Okay, lady, cut the crap and turn the computer on,’ ” she said.
But Gold-Bikin was alarmed to learn that Illinois has made it a criminal offense to interfere with parenting time. She said spats are common when one parent keeps a child longer than the other considers appropriate. In some cases, she said, one parent suspects that the child is being abused while in the other parent’s care and is seeking to keep the child away from that person.
“The manipulation that is going to go on with this is just outrageous,” Gold-Bikin warned. “I have so many cases where the women feel that the kids are being abused [while with the father], and it takes awhile to get this into court. The fathers’ rights people have gone way too far on this one.”
Susan Moss of New York’s Chemtob Moss Forman Talbert, which specializes in family law, raised similar concerns.
On the subject of virtual visitation, she said, “Judges should have that option in their tool chest, especially when one parent wants to move far away or when there are problems with infrequent visitations.” Moss noted that, in New York at least, judges often make virtual visitation part of a custody agreement even though the option is not specifically addressed in state law.
But as for making interference with parenting time a criminal offense, Moss worries that tilts the custody struggle too much in one party’s favor. Parents, she stressed, must learn to get along.