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Clinician's Digest

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Virtual Visitation for Parents and Children

By Garry Cooper

When his ex-wife got permission from the court to move out of state with their 4-year-old daughter, computer expert Michael Gough feared that he'd lose his close connection with his child. Aware of the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with a youngster exclusively through phone calls, Gough requested that the judge order regular virtual visitation (VV), so he could use a webcam and the Internet to stay in touch visually as well as verbally. The judge refused initially, saying, "If there isn't case law, state law, or a statute, don't ask for it because I won't order it." Undeterred, Gough brought his laptop to court and demonstrated to the judge how powerful and immediate virtual visitation could be. Impressed with what he saw, the judge granted the order. Since then, at least five states have passed statutes approving VV for noncustodial parents, with several more considering doing the same.

VV is undeniably a potential tool for salvaging and expanding a parent-child relationship that an angry, divorced parent might wish to disrupt. With young children, in particular, who are less verbal and rely more on visual stimuli for processing new experiences, there's a world of difference between VV and the telephone.

Through VV, Gough read bedtime stories to his daughter and sang hand-clapping songs with her. For her part, she took him on a tour of her new home, and, as she grew older, was able to play checkers with her father. They even opened Christmas presents together.

For Gough, an especially important advantage of VV was that his ex-wife couldn't stand beside their daughter, influencing her reactions and responses, during the virtual visits. Even if a parent is standing out of range of the webcam, says Gough, you can still see where your child is looking and perceive whether coaching or sabotage is going on. VV even helped ease their reunion: when Gough and his daughter finally visited face to face, he says, it felt more like they were continuing, rather than restarting, their relationship.

Some parents fear that bitter, alienating ex-spouses might actually suggest VV in an attempt to justify moving to another state with their child. To prevent VV from becoming a tool to abet such behavior, states like Wisconsin and Florida that endorse VV as a legally valid visitation component have specified that it can't be used to help justify an out-of-state move or to determine custody. This means that the only basis for approving parent-child relocations is a compelling need on the part of the custodial parent.

Even when a full-blown case of parental alienation isn't the issue, VV can alleviate some of the loneliness of separation and mitigate the emotional and developmental damage to children caught in the crosscurrents of parental conflicts. While VV may not take all of the pain out of the situation, it certainly helps. "Virtual visitation," Gough says, "is a tool, not a remedy."

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