It is the 21st century and, slowly, modern technology is making its way into the custody realm. For years, custody orders have often included provisions allowing for telephone contact between non-custodial parents and their children. For years, these provisions have been a source of contention, with non-custodial parents claiming that custodial parents block telephone access. Conversely, custodial parents often claim that the privilege of telephone contact is abused by non-custodial parents. As we discussed in an early blog, studies have shown that technology is providing an avenue for non-custodial parents (particularly fathers) to stay more involved with their children on a day-to-day basis, however, recent court decisions are showing a trend for using technology to justify significant shifts in custodial arrangements. Video chatting, among other technologies, is carving out an increasingly important role in shaping custody cases.
Various states, including Illinois and Florida, have enacted statutes allowing courts to order virtual visitation or e-visitation in custody matters. Without express statutory authority, a number of courts in other states have required custodial parents to permit non-custodial parents to communicate with their children through applications such as Skype. More troubling, however, is the recent trend in allowing parents to relocate with children, in part because the non-custodial parent can replace physical visitation with virtual visitation.
Recently, a New York judge required a mother, who planned to move with her children from New York to Florida, to arrange for Skype access between her children and their father before she was permitted to move. Debra Baker v. James Baker, 29610-2007, NYLJ 1202464436957, at *1 (Suffolk Cty. Sup., August 4, 2010).
Similarly, a Massachusetts case in 2002 garnered headlines when a mother was permitted to move with her three young children over the objections of their very involved father. The court, in that matter, found that access to the children via video-chat would allow the father to maintain his relationship with the children. Cleri v. Cleri, Massachusetts Probate & Family Court, No. 01D-0009-D1. The father appeared on the Today show to express his outrage at the decision.
While video chat and other electronic means of communication may be beneficial in those cases where the non-custodial parent can not visit a child regularly, I question whether it is a satisfactory substitute for real visits between a parent and a child. While Skype may be an affordable alternative for a telephone call, a good old fashioned game of catch between a parent and child is priceless.