Virtual visitation allows parents to connect with their child over the Internet through Skype or other online video conferencing methods. It has enabled parents to maintain a close regular relationship with their child.
Many families use the technology to stay in touch with loved ones even if they are not dealing with the fallout of a divorce. In fact, I Skype my mom, brothers, kids, nieces, nephews, and extended family as a fun way to keep in touch. And we use video conferencing daily in our office to meet with clients and team members.
The cost is not significant for most. If you already have a good Internet connection and computer, a webcam with microphone will cost less than $100 and a Skype account for video is free.
Given the frequency of use of this technology for road warriors, military personnel serving overseas, students, etc. to stay connected with their families it is not surprising that this technology is becoming more accepted in child custody cases as a means to supplement visitation.
While our court’s have had inherent authority to include such visitation in custodial arrangements, they now have a legislative green light with specific guidelines. The North Carolina Legislature approved a change in law in 2009 to expand the use of virtual visitation for child custody N.C. GEN. STAT. § 50-13.2(e) provides that:
“An order for custody of a minor child may provide for visitation rights by electronic communication. In granting visitation by electronic communication, the court shall consider the following:
(1) Whether electronic communication is in the best interest of the minor child.
(2) Whether equipment to communicate by electronic means is available, accessible, and affordable to the parents of the minor child.
(3) Any other factor the court deems appropriate in determining whether to grant visitation by electronic communication.
The court may set guidelines for electronic communication, including the hours in which the communication may be made, the allocation of costs between the parents in implementing electronic communication with the child, and the furnishing of access information between parents necessary to facilitate electronic communication. Electronic communication with a minor child may be used to supplement visitation with the child. Electronic communication may not be used as a replacement or substitution for custody or visitation. The amount of time electronic communication is used shall not be a factor in calculating child support or be used to justify or support relocation by the custodial parent out of the immediate area or the State. Electronic communication between the minor child and the parent may be subject to supervision as ordered by the court. As used in this subsection, “electronic communication” means contact, other than face‑to‑face contact, facilitated by electronic means, such as by telephone, electronic mail, instant messaging, video teleconferencing, wired or wireless technologies by Internet, or other medium of communication.”
We are encouraging our clients to consider virtual visitation options even if they live in the same town. The parents can agree on a set of rules regarding virtual visitation including technical specifications, equipment, frequency of use, hours of use, and even sanctions for failure to comply. All of this can be outlined in a parenting agreement, Separation Agreement and Property Settlement (SAPS), or Consent Order on Child Custody and Visitation.
Families in transition due to a divorce need to fully understand that virtual visitation is a supplement and not a replacement for parent-child time. Critics rightly point out that you can’t hug a child through a webcam. However, used as a supplement, it can increase quality parenting time for both parents.