"Virtual visitation," as the term implies, is a form of child visitation that requires the use of technology to keep in contact with a child. This type of visitation may include email, video conferencing, video chatting, and instant messaging, but typically is detailed as part of a parenting agreement or child custody order.
Requests for virtual visitation are generally made by the non-custodial parent in situations where the custodial parent plans to relocate or move out of the area with a child -- thereby interfering with existing parental visitation rights. Requests for such arrangements also may apply to new child custody and visitation requests, including child custody and visitation in non-divorce cases and visitation requests by unmarried fathers.
Read on to learn more about how the law can accommodate alternatives to in-person visitation.
Virtual Visitation Laws
"Internet visitation" or "electronic visitation" grew in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states -- including Indiana, Utah, Wisconsin, and North Carolina -- have enacted laws allowing courts to order online or electronic visitation in custody matters. Legislatures in many other states are currently considering passing such laws. Even if your state may not specifically address such contact in the language of its laws, most jurisdictions will routinely order such contact regardless.
Virtual visitation may also be an option in many states which don't yet have specific laws on the books. In many states that have not passed specific legislation, family courts have ruled in favor of using technology to extend parental visitation rights.
Virtual visitation laws are meant to supplement, not replace, traditional in-person parent-time. These laws generally require each parent to:
- Permit and encourage virtual visits and make them reasonably available, and
- Allow uncensored communication with the child.
Although the telephone is still the easiest and quickest way to communicate, the more technologically advanced ways to engage in virtual visits may include standard electronic communication tools (such as email and instant messaging), webcams, video conferencing, social media sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat), and photo-sharing sites (such as Shutterfly, Picasa, and Kodak Gallery).
Like other child visitation arrangements, courts will consider the best interests of the child in determining whether to allow parent-child virtual visitation. In cases where no contact has been deemed necessary, it's possible a court will not order virtual visitation if regular visitation was not already granted. In some instances where in-person visits aren't deemed in the child's best interests yet cutting off all contact has also been determined to be harmful, allowing calls or video chats may be ordered. For example, if a parent loses access to transportation for in-person visits, virtual visitation might still be ordered until the parent has the ability to travel again.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to such arrangements. Because so many divorced parents share custody of their children, access to virtual visitation provides potentially far-reaching benefits to enrich the parent-child relationship. Not only can parents become more involved in their children's lives despite the distance between them, parents and children may arguably become better people.
Some of the examples of how this may be used to benefit the parent-child relationship include:
- Reading a bedtime story to a child
- Helping with homework or a special project
- Seeing subtle facial expressions of a parent or child, such as a smile or frown
- A child showing a parent a missing tooth, an award, or other special accomplishments
- Connecting on social media sites as a way to talk about day-to-day occurrences
- Witnessing sporting events, piano recitals, and other events live as they are happening
On the other hand, while instant messaging and other forms of electronic communication may be beneficial in those cases where one parent is physically absent, some believe that virtual visitation may be viewed as a replacement, and not supplement, for regular in-person child visits.
Questions about virtual visitation? Talk to an attorney
Technology can help to bridge many gaps, including those between a child and a non-custodial parent. Virtual visitation can provide the next best thing if it's the only way to maintain contact with your child. You can find out about virtual visitation and other aspects of child custody by speaking with a child custody lawyer near you.