With work and the school week behind them, Charles A. Mason III and his daughter, Arielle, who live more than 1,500 miles apart, prepared for their scheduled weekend visit. There was no packing involved, no plane tickets, no car rides or drop-offs. All it took was some instant messaging on their home computers and a little fidgeting in front of their respective Webcams, and father and daughter were chatting, playing checkers and practicing multiplication tables.
"It's funner than talking on the phone, because I can see him," said Arielle, 10, who lives with her mother in Longmont, Colo., but has regular "virtual visits" with her father as part of the custody arrangement her parents worked out after her mother moved eight years ago. "It's just like being in front of him, but with games and computer stuff added."
As for Mr. Mason, who lives in Warrenton, Va., the video chats are a vast improvement over telephone calls, during which his daughter — like many children her age — is often monosyllabic and easily distracted.
"I can barely hold her attention on the phone for five minutes," he said. "When we can play checkers and look at one another, I can keep her talking about school and life for an hour or more."
As divorce has remained a constant, custody arrangements have evolved over the last half-century. Increased awareness of the toll divorce can take on children and fathers' increased involvement as parents, combined with the demands of working parents who often have to move in order to get and keep jobs, have made for increasingly creative and sometimes complex custody agreements.
As the legal system begins to acknowledge the potential benefits of technology in bridging the physical and emotional distance caused by divorce and separation, more families are experimenting with computer-assisted custody sharing.
Although any separating couple can opt for virtual visits in their custody agreement, debate surrounding the issue is unfolding on the state level as advocates push to have the option spelled out in state laws in order to broaden awareness of the practice and enable judges to grant such visits where they see fit.
However, some say that virtual visitation is not necessarily a good thing:
But not everyone gives virtual visits a ringing endorsement. In addition to concerns that it may be used to limit in-person visits, some lawyers and noncustodial parents also worry that it may be used to bolster the case for a custodial parent's contested relocation.
In 2001 an appeals court in New Jersey overruled a lower court decision denying a custodial parent's request to move out of state, reasoning that the court did not consider computer-assisted visits as an option for the noncustodial parent who objected to the move.
A Massachusetts court ordered video visits in 2002 in another contested relocation dispute. The father in the case, who argued that video visits were being imposed to replace in-person visits with his children, lost his appeal to stop the move.
"The danger is that it will become a substitute for real time," said David L. Levy, chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, based in Hyattsville, Md., which advocates for children affected by divorce and separation. "Virtual time is not real time. You can't virtually hug your child or walk your child to school. We don't want this to be seen as an excuse to encourage move-aways."
The Utah and Wisconsin regulations specify that virtual visits should be used as a supplement to, not a substitute for, traditional visits. The Wisconsin bill also specifies that virtual visits should not be used to justify a custodial parent's relocation. The laws define "electronic communication" as contact by video conference, e-mail, instant message, telephone or other wired or wireless technology.
"I think that most judges understand that children require physical one-on-one contact with the absent parent," said Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Clearly, such technology offers both promise and peril for children of divorced parents. For such visitation arrangements to work effectively there needs to also be in-person visitation. The custodial parent needs to still be involved in the process of allowing their child to be online to ensure their safety. States need have specific requirements in place that do not allow custodial parents to use virtual visits as a reason to relocate far away from from the other parent. But in situations where the child is already living far away from the parent, the new means of communication available through the Internet allow parents to bridge the distance and spend more quality time with their children. That is something children of all ages and life situations need: time with their parents.