Charlotte Observer

Sunday, May 6, 2001

Divorce dilemma: Online visits

Parents who wish to move may consider proposing option

Associated Press
The Charlotte Observer

NEW YORK -- Among divorce lawyers, they are known as move-away cases: the often bitter disputes that flare when parents with custody of children try to relocate far from former spouses with visiting rights.

For better or worse, the long-distance prowess of Internet technology is expected to play an expanding role as these cases reach America's courtrooms. The crucial question: Should the prospect of "virtual visitation," through e-mail, instant messages and videoconferencing, make it easier for a custodial parent to get permission to move?

A New Jersey appeals court broached this legal frontier this year. It ruled that online visiting, along with personal meetings, would be a "creative and innovative" way for a father to stay in touch with his 9-year-old daughter if the man's ex-wife moved to California over his objections.

The woman later decided against moving, but the ruling intrigued family-law specialists and alarmed fathers-rights advocates.

"This will be another tool for judges to further distance fathers from their children's lives," said Stuart Miller of the American Fathers Coalition, whose group thinks family courts are biased in favor of mothers.

Legal experts think it's inevitable that custodial parents seeking to move will propose virtual visitation in hope of swaying judges.

"From now on, if I have clients who want to move, I'd tell them to offer to buy a (Web) camera and set that up," said Norma Trusch, a family law attorney in Houston.

"It's true that you can't hug a computer," said Trusch, quoting a mantra of virtual-visitation opponents. "On the other hand, it's possible with these communication methods to maintain a very close, continual relationship with a child."

Linda Elrod, who chairs the American Bar Association's family law section, said judges won't be able to ignore the new technology as they weigh conflicting pleas from divorced parents.

"Move-away cases are balancing acts: one parent's upward mobility vs. the other's continuing contact with the child," said Elrod, a law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

Many divorced parents already use virtual visitation - not under court order but because it helps them maintain ties with children.

Jim Buie, an Internet consultant from Takoma Park, Md., has published an online journal about his efforts to stay in touch with his son, Matthew, now 17, in the eight years since Matthew and Buie's ex-wife moved to Polk County, N.C.

From 500 miles away, Buie has assisted Matthew with homework, helped him create a Web page, e-mailed photographs, and played online chess and Scrabble.

"Virtual parenting is not a panacea. You're still going to have the heartache of not being together," Buie said. "But, alas, it's better than no relationship at all."

No federal laws govern move-aways. They are resolved case by case, based on court precedents and state legislation.

The co-president of the National Women's Law Center, Nancy Duff Campbell, said her Washington-based group believes courts should ease restrictions on move-aways. Ideally, she said, divorced parents could negotiate mutually acceptable arrangements, possibly including Internet visitation. "If there must be separation, it's something that can help the families."

For more online, Jim Buie's journal: