When Michael Gough's ex-wife moved from Utah to Wisconsin with their 4-year-old daughter Saige, Gough asked the judge for a special concession in the custody agreement: virtual visitation rights -- permission to contact Saige electronically when a face-to-face meeting was not possible.
The judged scoffed, but Gough didn't give up hope of having regular contact with his daughter. Instead he found instances where other judges prescribed electronic communication and compiled a package of evidence. He demonstrated how such an arrangement would work and convinced the judge it would benefit his daughter. Gough won the right to contact Saige electronically if he couldn't see her in person. Now he is championing legislation nationwide and in Canada to help noncustodial parents maintain long-distance relationships with their children.
"We can't have our kids every day," Gough said. "This is one tool that will help mitigate that issue. If you talk to those of us who have been involved in move-aways, our children run up to us and greet us after we start doing video calls. They didn't before. Before, you had to learn your kid all over again and they had to learn you."
So far, Utah and Wisconsin have laws allowing judges to order virtual visitation. Twelve states have confirmed predraft bills, according to InternetVisitation.org, the Web site Gough developed.
The laws aren't written to force the issue onto judges, but to educate both attorneys and judges about visitation options created by advances in video teleconferencing technology, Gough said. "Think about how divorce works: You're somewhat traumatized, you go to your legal counsel, attorney or whatever and say, 'What are my options?' Unless the attorney knows, you're not going to hear that virtual visitation is an option because they are, unfortunately, very computer illiterate."
The same goes for judges, and that's why Rep. Ruth Munson, R-Elgin, sponsored a bill in Illinois that gives judges the option to grant virtual visitation. "They don't even know it exists as a possibility," Munson said of the judges. "This is another tool in their tool belt when they're deciding what's in the best interest of the child. There's nothing now that prohibits them from providing this as an option; there's also nothing now that says you should consider it, either."
Munson said she was approached by a constituent whose ex-wife had custody of their son and moved out of state. The noncustodial father and his son wanted to use a Webcam to communicate -- specifically the son wanted to show off his prom date to his father -- but the mother wouldn't allow it.
"I started exploring a bit about the use of Webcams in virtual visitation as part of tools a judge could use, when appropriate, to help families stay connected," Munson said, adding that although her family is intact, they use Webcams for birthdays and other occasions when she is away. Once, Munson's husband contacted her via Webcam to get her approval on new dresses her daughter purchased. "But most important," she said, "young people use it all the time to communicate with their friends. It's the tool they use."
Virtual visitation tools can be anything that works over the Internet or any other communication medium, including cell phones, Wi-Fi or WiMAX. "It's pretty technology independent," Gough said.
The average age of the technology-savvy person is 37, Gough said, and since most lawyers and judges are over 40, there's a gap between those who use the technology frequently and those who litigate divorce cases. Therefore, it puts the burden on the divorce petitioner to request electronic communication as part of custody.
In some states, Gough said, if it isn't law, it's off the table and