Virtual Visitation

Jim Buie and his son, Matthew, always have liked to stay in touch. Telephone calls are good. Letters can work. But nothing can replace computers and Webcams for the two-some who now live miles and even oceans apart. For more than seven years, they have shared stories, played games and worked on homework together through regular “virtual visits”.

“It was so striking when we first started. It actually felt like we were in the same room,” says Buie, who lives in Apex. “Being able to see him and interact regularly was such a huge improvement.”

Buie is just one of many parents using the Internet to help stay in touch with their children as part of the custody arrangements worked out after a divorce. It can be difficult to maintain a close relationship with children when living far away. To help bridge the miles, families are experimenting with computer-assisted communications.

Although any separating couple can agree on virtual visits like these, some states are adopting laws to broaden awareness of the method and encourage judges to formally approve these visits. Local virtual visitation advocates would like the North Carolina General Assembly to consider such a measure for custody agreements.

Three other states – Wisconsin, Utah and Missouri – already have entered virtual visits into state law. Efforts to push similar legislation are in various stages in several other states, including Virginia, Illinois, Florida, California and New York.

Lee Rosen, a family law specialist and president of Rosen Law Firm headquartered in Raleigh, says creating a virtual visitation statue in North Carolina would provide another option to families struggling to resolve custody disputes.

“People here don’t really think about it, but if we had a statute on virtual visitation they would be more inclined,” says Rosen. “Statutes are not only created to make people act a certain way, but to help educate them on their options.”

Currently in North Carolina, virtual visitations are sometimes agreed to in child custody cases, but usually between the parties and not as a court order. Many other local lawyers support the concept of virtual visitation and its inclusion in state law, but they add that the practice should not be seen as a replacement for personal visits.

“While this is a great supplement for visitation, it should not be seen as a replacement,” says Raleigh attorney Angela Haas of Haas McNeil & Associates. “Virtual visitation is one of the ways parents can stay as involved as possible with their children on a daily basis,” she says.

Her partner, John McNeil, says both parents and judges across North Carolina have varying knowledge of computers and Webcam communication. A state statute supporting virtual visitation as an option would help educate all participants, he says.

“Now, it depends on the family dynamics and willingness to be able to facilitate the use of virtual visits,” McNeil says. “In many cases, it also could be a benefit to the custodial parent to have some additional assistance with tasks such as homework.”

Advocates also emphasize that the use of computers and Webcams for visits would require the same parental supervision as any other technology in the home.

Buie and his son have been pioneers in the virtual visitation experience. They began experimenting with Web visits in 1999 when Matthew was in high school and living with his mother in North Carolina. At the time, Buie lived in Maryland.

“We would play games such as checkers together,” Buie says. “When Matthew became really interested in music, he played the flute for me.”

Now 22, Matthew directs audio systems for a cruise line, often traveling throughout the world. He and his father still talk regularly using their computers and Webcams.

Buie runs a Web site called virtualfamiliesandfriends.com and is writing a book on the subject. Both he and Rosen have talked to area legislators about the possibility of a state statute, perhaps being introduced in the General Assembly next January.

“This is just one way to maintain a relationship when you can’t be in the same physical space,” Buie says. “It is certainly a much richer experience that talking on the telephone or writing letters.”