Technology is making it easier for noncustodial, divorced parents to maintain their bond with their children.
In virtual visitation, computers are outfitted with webcams that allow parents and children to see each other, making a phone call much more personal and much easier for younger children.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wisconsin, Utah and Missouri have passed virtual visitation laws and bills have been submitted in Ohio, South Carolina, Illinois and Virginia.
Eleven other states have drafted but have not yet submitted bills.
Not everyone supports virtual visitation, though. Some argue that virtual visitation could encourage divorced parents to move farther away from their children.
"You can't virtually hug your child or walk your child to school," said David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council. "We don't want this to be seen as an excuse to encourage move-aways."
Still, others argue that virtual visitation will not weaken, but strengthen the bond between divorced parents and their children.
"Often, work demands will force parents to move to another state," said Anne Pleshette Murphy, "Good Morning America's" parenting contributor. "And rather than miss time with their children, these parents can still see and talk to their children on a regular basis -- sometimes even more often than they did before."
A Virtual Bond
Charles Mason, who lives in Virginia, uses the technology to visit his 10-year-old daughter, Arielle, who lives in Colorado.
They have been using the webcam to communicate for nine years.
Arielle also uses it to talk with her grandmother, friend and her mother when she stays with her father over the summer.
"I'm a technology professional, and I suggested that we could do this if mom and dad worked together," Mason said.
Mason and his daughter meet every Monday and Thursday. The virtual visitations, Mason said, are very controlled but fulfilling.
"I love it," Arielle said. "We play games, and I got to know him better. We talk about my day and review stuff that's special. We talk more sometimes, but now we talk about once a week. We do homework together, like my math problems."
Arielle said that she was able to show her father where she lost her tooth and perform a piano recital just for him.
They were able to bond in ways they could not on the phone, Mason said.
"After five minutes on the telephone, I lost her," he said. "But with the computer and the Internet, I have her for hours. We play checkers; we share photos."
Better Relationship Online Than in Person
Mason and Arielle visit three times a year in person: two months of summer vacation, one week during spring break, and one week during the holidays.
Mason has another child, Chaz, who lives in Virginia.
Chaz's mother would not allow virtual visitation because of privacy concerns, and the judge wouldn't order it because Virginia did not have a virtual visitation law.
Mason and his son visit weekly in person instead.
Mason thinks this relationship with his son lags behind because his mother won't allow him online contact.
"The court in Boulder, Colo., was visionary," Mason said. "They saw this years ago and allowed it to happen. Some courts have concern of privacy. So I don't get to see Chaz on the Internet like I do [with Arielle.]"
Murphy said that the online visitations were great additions to in-person visits but shouldn't replace them.
"I think the important thing is it cannot substitute for these visits they have with one another," she said. "High-tech is not a substitute for touch in terms of what kids need."