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The issue of “virtual visitation” or “teleconferencing” is starting to play a role in divorce and custody disputes. The chief purpose of the current research lies in investigating the genuine essence of virtual visitation. Also, the effectiveness of meetings online is about to be researched and verified. Thus, the paper comprises several reciprocal sections regarding the phenomenon of virtual visitation. The first section is dedicated to the issue of effectiveness. In this part, all apparent advantages of virtual visitation as an alternative to actual meetings in the real world are outlined and evaluated. The second section contains the analysis of the principle limitations and drawbacks in the domain of virtual visitation. The third section comprises the analytical review of Mason v. Coleman case. As the result, a special emphasis is laid upon the oral arguments and slip opinion. The current study ends with the examination of moral, ethical and legal issues raised by virtual visitation.

Keywords: virtual visitation, custodial parent, non-custodial parent, child, Mason v. Coleman 

Virtual visitation and its effectiveness

Above all things, it may be appropriate to define the concept of “virtual visitation” as the process of teleconferencing which involves the communication between absent parents and their children by means of web cameras and microphones (LeVasseur, 2004). In LeVasseur’s opinion, the phenomenon of virtual visitation is beginning to play a substantial role in divorce and custody disputes. The key purpose of virtual visitation lies in maintaining a significant contact between parents and children after divorce (LeVasseur, 2004). Furthermore, the communication via the Internet eliminates the obstacle of distance. According to Smith (2001), virtual visitation is a fairly efficient way of interaction between a parent and child. For both the non-custodial parent and the child there is a real benefit in being able to see each other “in a daily conversation, or work on the same document to help with homework” (Smith, 2001, p. 24). In this connection, it should be ascertained that virtual visitation manifests a wide range of advantages. Thus, the visitation with the help of a web-camera is a relatively cheap technique of interaction which supplements and not substitutes physical visits (Cron, 2006). In addition, virtual visitation, to Milliard’s point of view, augments the access which a parent has to a child (Millard, 2005). Although the internet communication should not be juxtaposed with the face-to-face meetings, it is deemed a good alternative that is better than nothing. To sum up, virtual visitation is fairly efficient both for the child and non-custodial parent because it facilitates their communication as well as maintains the parental bound.  

Drawbacks and limitations of virtual visitation

Despite being an efficient way of the interplay between a child and an absent parent, visual visitation embodies a number of limitations and drawbacks. According to Smith (2001), one of virtual visitation’s weaknesses lies in its discouraging influence on parents who avoid meetings with their children in the real world. The researcher purports that some ex-spouses may diminish their physical contact with children by moving away to some distant locations (Smith, 2001). Similarly, there are cases where virtual visitation being a part of the divorce contracts between parents who live together intensifies the control over the custodial parent’s life when, for instance, the online interaction has taken place at night (Millard, 2005). From the custodial parent’s perspective, it should be asserted that virtual visitation may be abused by the non-custodial parent causing the interference with other person’s parenting time. As far as the court is concerned, it should be claimed that some judges are prone to analyze the applicability of virtual visitation separately in every case because the “teleconferencing” is considered by the justices as not appropriate to every custody arrangement (Millard, 2005). Therefore, it should be presumed that only specific cases require the prescriptions of virtual visitation.

Mason v. Coleman slip opinion

In Mason v. Coleman case a mother sharing joint physical and legal custody of her children with their father has sought to remove the children from the Commonwealth. When the mother has informed the father of her intention to relocate to New Hampshire, the father has refused to permit the removal of the children from the Commonwealth and “filed a complaint for modification of the divorce decree” seeking sole physical custody and a temporary order enjoining the mother from relocating the children from the Commonwealth (Mason v. Coleman, 2006, the slip opinion).  The mother has counterclaimed both for modification granting her sole physical custody and for a temporary order permitting the scheduled relocation to Bristol, New Hampshire (Mason v. Coleman, 2006, the oral arguments). As far as the mother’s interests are concerned, it should be ascertained that her counterclaims are predominantly substantiated with the appeal towards the “best interests” of her children. In order to evaluate the issue of the child’s best interest the court has been obliged to examine the effect of the relocation on the child as a relevant factor. A mental note should be made that the father has had the most compelling arguments in the dispute. The mother’s appeal to the child’s best interests motivating her decision to relocate has not been convincing. The justices have found that the children including one of them with special needs will suffer detriments to their interest if they are relocated to Bristol because Bristol’s schools are not preferable for those with special needs (Mason v. Coleman, 2006, the slip opinion). Apart from the above, a supposed reduction of the father’s parenting time has also been weighted by the court as the argument against the relocation.

Moral, ethical, legal and public policy issues raised by virtual visitation

After everything has been given due consideration, it should be noticed that virtual visitation raises a wide range of problems. In the context of morality, it should be emphasized that virtual visitation is an ambivalent phenomenon. On the one hand, it is immorally to deprive a remote person of a possibility to maintain the ties with the child. As is generally known, the communication and visual perception should is a very efficient mean of enriching and maintaining any type of relations. Hence, virtual visitation is conceived to serve the aforesaid purpose well. On the other hand, a non-custodial parent may abuse his position with the help of virtual visitation decreasing the number of actual meetings with the child in the real world. Also, it is unethical to interfere with the custodial parent’s life, disturb and control both the child and the ex-spouse by way of calling online. From the legal point of view, fathers and mothers are expected to share their reciprocal obligations of raising their kids. As the result, neither parent possesses the moral or legal right “to coerce the other away from the children” (Ashley & Hall, 2008, p. 43). According to the authors, fathers are frequently forced out of the family in the first or second year after the divorce. Therefore, virtual visitation may eliminate the mentioned problem being a very convenient tool which bridges the gap between the non-custodial parent and his child.

In conclusion it is possible to add that virtual visitation being an alternative to physical meetings assists the progress of preserving the ties between the non-custodial parent and his child.     

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