National Post

Photo Illustration / National Post

Video conferencing is recognized by some courts as a form of visitation
for non-custodial parents.

Monday, May 14, 2001

The custodial connection

VIRTUAL VISITATIONS

BY KAREN THOMAS
National Post

As the world becomes smaller and cross-country moves become routine, family courts are increasingly considering virtual visitation for non-custodial parents in divorce cases.

"We're seeing it spread rapidly ... by the end of the year well see it raised in every state," says Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, a newspaper for small law firms. However, some family experts think virtual visits will bring a new line of issues that may make divorce even more difficult on families.

Virtual visitation involves using tools such as video conferencing, Webcams and other wired technologies to supplement face-to-face visits and court-ordered phone contacts between a non-custodial parent and a child.

Such innovations got a boost earlier this year when a New Jersey appeals court ruled a family court judge did not sufficiently consider virtual visitation when he said a mother could not move across the country with her daughter. Though the father opposed the move, the mother argued that her former husband could keep in touch by using an interactive Web site that she planned to setup.

The appeals court called the proposal "creative and innovative."

Before the first judge could reconsider his decision, the mother, Kyron Henn-Lee, decided not to move after all, so there was no final judgment. Nonetheless, the family is setting up teleconferencing technologies so that Ms. Henn-Lee, a Web site designer, can keep in touch with her nine-year-old daughter when travelling for work.

Another forward-thinking judge in December ordered the parents of Ashton Kaleita, 10, to install video-conferencing computers in both homes when Ashton's mother wanted to move from Florida to Ohio.

Tawny Kaleita-Sniderman, 46, lost her bid to take Ashton with her to Ohio, but after nearly three months of video conferencing with her daughter, who remained in Florida with her father, Ms. Kaleita-Sniderman is sold. "I can now participate in what I couldn't by phone. " she says. "It's not like a hug. It's not like giving a kiss good night, but it's better than nothing. It's better than talking to a black phone and imagining."

Video conferencing allows Ashton to share spontaneous moments, such as displaying daily artwork, showing her mother the dress she plans to wear on picture day. "Otherwise, she'd have to wait a month, and the excitement is gone. With virtual visits you can see excitement," Ms. Kaleita-Sniderman says.

In the past 15 years, courts in the U.S. have seen an increase in the number of divorce and custody cases in which one parent wants to move, Mr. Harrison says. "Most people feel this doesn't replace visitation, but in a close case, it helps," he says. "It's a supplement to visitation that would sway a judge to allow one parent to move away."

These Internet video connections are an obvious extension of court rulings that children keep in touch with a non-residential parent by phone, says Charles Schainberg, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "Visual is better than voice," he says.

Mr. Harrison cautions, however, that this is effective only when older children are involved, and in cases where divorcing parents are willing to co-operate.

Lawyers also warn that nothing is private over the Internet, so all that is said and done online can be used against a parent, Mr. Harrison says.

While Web video is a "promising technology for post-divorce families [to] enhance the connection it seems awfully early for courts to be mandating" it, Mr. Doherty says. "I would be concerned if it became seen as a substitute for face-to-face or touch communication."

Considering a "glorified telephone call" a form of visitation is unacceptable, says lawyer William Roca, who argued against Ms. Henn-Lee's proposal to move. "Is it a little better than a phone call? Yes. But a substitute for actual visitation? Absolutely not."

The phone was not an option for lawyer Sondra Harris, who handled a New York case two years ago involving the parents of a deaf child. The courts signed off on allowing the child's mother to move to Washington state as long as daughter and father had access to video conferencing to communicate using sign language.

So far, it has been a success, Ms. Harris says. "There's a lot of face-to-face visitation built into the agreement, and [the signing] has been working as well."

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