Boston Globe

Father to appeal 'virtual visitation'

Says video chats no substitute

By Michele Kurtz, Globe Correspondent and Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 7/11/2002
Boston Globe

A father who was ordered by a judge last week to have ''virtual visitation'' with his three children once they move to New York with their mother said yesterday he'll appeal the decision.

''It shouldn't be a substitute for physical contact,'' said Paul Cleri, of Canton. ''It certainly could be a great idea to augment physicial visits, but it certainly shouldn't be done in lieu of what the children are used to and what the father is used to. ... I never went more than a couple days without seeing the children.''

In an unusual order, Norfolk Probate and Family Court Judge E. Chouteau Merrill last week granted Cleri and his wife, Lorraine, of Needham, a divorce and granted him video conferences with his 5-year-old son and twin 2-year-old daughters twice a week, in addition to two weekend visits a month.

Until the divorce, which involved a heated custody dispute, Paul Cleri shared custody of the children, often seeing them four or five days a week, he said yesterday.

''I did all the things a normal parent would do - cooked meals for them, potty trained, read nighttime stories,'' he said.

Lorraine Cleri's lawyer, David Cherny, said his client wants to move back to her hometown on Long Island to be near her extended family. He predicted that the controversial virtual visits - which were her idea in this case - will become increasingly common.

This worries Paul Cleri's lawyer, Lisa Poblocki. ''If the trend continues, it makes it almost a slam-dunk, I think, for the custodial parent to move,'' she said.

The Cleri case is apparently not the first time a Massachusetts judge has ordered virtual visitation. Last August, Judge Nancy M. Gould, an associate justice in Suffolk Probate and Family Court, granted a similar custody arrangement between a man and his ex-wife, who was planning to move to California with their 10-year-old son.

Gould gave the mother, Amy S. Looker, custody of the boy and established a visitation schedule for the father, Steven M. Chevalier. But she also ordered the mother to pay for video equipment and cameras that would allow Chevalier to talk to his son face-to-face - via a Web camera or a videophone - on a regular basis.

The idea occurred to Gould after she read a magazine article about ''virtual'' possibilities in other fields.

''It's not a substitute for face-to-face visitation, and I'll never say it is,'' Gould said yesterday, adding that the on-camera sessions supplemented an extensive visitation schedule. ''It's difficult. You're dealing with two coasts.''

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