A NEW FRONT in the divorce wars: online visitation rights

Saturday, May 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Among divorce lawyers, they are known as move-away cases: the often-bitter disputes that flare when parents with custody of children try to relocate far from ex-spouses with visiting rights.

For better or worse, the long-distance prowess of Internet technology is expected to play an expanding role as these cases reach America's courtrooms. The pivotal question: Should the prospect of ``virtual visitation'' _ through e-mail, instant messages and video-conferencing _ make it easier for a custodial parent to get permission to move?

A New Jersey appeals court broached this new legal frontier earlier this year. It ruled that online visiting _ along with face-to-face contact _ would be a ``creative and innovative'' way for a father to stay in touch with his 9-year-old daughter if the man's ex-wife moved to California over his objections.

The woman later decided against moving, but the ruling intrigued family-law specialists and alarmed fathers-rights advocates.

``This will be another tool for judges to further distance fathers from their children's lives,'' said Stuart Miller of the American Fathers Coalition, whose group believes family courts are biased in favor of mothers.

Legal experts think it's inevitable that custodial parents seeking to move will propose virtual visitation in hopes of swaying judges.

``From now on, if I have clients who want to move, I'd tell them to offer to buy a (Web) camera and set that up,'' said Norma Trusch, a family-law attorney from Houston.

``It's true that you can't hug a computer,'' said Trusch, quoting a mantra of virtual visitation opponents. ``On the other hand, it's possible with these communication methods to maintain a very close, continual relationship with a child.''

Linda Elrod, who chairs the American Bar Association's family law section, said judges won't be able to ignore the new technology as they weigh conflicting pleas from divorced parents.

``Move-away cases are balancing acts _ one parent's upward mobility versus the other's continuing contact with the child,'' said Elrod, a law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

Many divorced parents already use virtual visitation _ not under court order but because it helps them maintain ties with faraway children.

Jim Buie, an Internet consultant from Takoma Park, Md., has published an online journal about his efforts to stay in touch with his son, Matthew _ now 17 _ in the eight years since Matthew and Buie's ex-wife moved to North Carolina.

From 500 miles away, Buie has assisted Matthew with homework, helped him create a Web page, e-mailed photographs, played online chess and Scrabble.

``Virtual parenting is not a panacea. You're still going to have the heartache of not being together,'' Buie said. ``But, alas, it's better than no relationship at all.''

Robert Whitfield of Reston, Va., has tried using the Internet to sustain a long-distance relationship with two sons who moved with his ex-wife to New Jersey. He's concerned that court-ordered Web visits could hurt dads in the long run.

``Gaining access to their children for most fathers is difficult at best,'' Whitfield said. ``It is likely to become more difficult when a mother says to a judge: 'Johnny can talk to his father on the computer whenever he wants to.'''

Buie's online parenting has been encouraged by his ex-wife, but he suggested that virtual visitation could founder if the divorced parents are hostile.

``The custodial parent can sabotage the noncustodial parent's online access to the child, or the noncustodial parent could use bad judgment and introduce the child to things online the child should not be exposed to,'' Buie said.

No federal laws govern move-aways; they are resolved case by case based on court precedents and state legislation.

In recent years, some courts have made it easier for custodial parents to relocate. In California, for example, a parent simply needs to demonstrate that a move is in the child's best interest; in the past, there had to be urgent circumstances.

In other states, legislators have tightened move-away criteria, for example requiring longer advance notice before a custodial parent can move.

``We're afraid the Internet will be seen as a trend to make move-aways easier _ we want to make them harder,'' said David Levy, president of Children's Rights Council, which promotes the rights of noncustodial parents.

Richard Crouch, a Virginia lawyer who formerly chaired the ABA's child custody committee, said move-away cases have become ``part of the wars of sexual politics,'' with feminist groups pressing to make relocation more commonplace.

The co-president of the National Women's Law Center, Nancy Duff Campbell, said her Washington-based group believes courts should ease restrictions on move-aways. But ideally, she said, divorced parents could negotiate mutually acceptable arrangements, possibly including Internet visitation.

``If there must be separation, it's something that can help the families,'' she said.

In Philadelphia, one judge already has been encouraging divorced parents to include online technology in their custody and visitation arrangements.

``It can be educational for the children, and brings the parents together,'' said Judge Robert Matthews.

``It doesn't replace a hug, but it sure beats not being able to see your kid grow up.''