Virtual Visitation Redefines Shared Child Custody

A Web camera now fills the gap to longer be an 'absent daddy.'

January 30, 2010, 7:07 PM

Jan. 30, 2010— -- Divorced dad Greg Baddick finds out about his 9-year-old daughter Isabella's school day not over the dinner table, but through a Web camera.

"B-minus? Hold it right up to the camera," Baddick tells Isabella through a Web camera on their laptops.

For Baddick, it's the next best thing to parenting in person. Between weekly in-person visits with his daughter, a Web camera now fills the gap.

Under a new Illinois law that went into effect Jan. 1, judges can give non-custodial parents this type of "electronic" visitation, meaning parents can have virtual visits with their kids through video conference, phone calls, instant messages and e-mail.

Baddick lives in Chicago, but his daughter lives in the suburbs 40 miles away. He says these "virtual visits" allow him to find out about Isabella's day-to-day life, and to take notice of the little things, like when she gets a haircut or new glasses. His ex-wife is onboard, Baddick says, and she encourages their Web chats.

Divorce attorney Jeffrey Leving says that the law is an effort to build a bond between parents and children who can't be in the same place.

"There are many, many children in America that are father absent that will no longer be 'father absent' because of this new law," Leving said.

Critics argue that the law has downsides, that virtual visits aren't equal to a parent being in the same room with their child. Baddick said that he and his daughter can't imagine missing out on the chats.

"It would be kind of sad," Isabella said via skype. "I couldn't really see him that often or talk to him." She's been Web-chatting with her dad for several months now.

Illinois isn't the first state to pass such a law. At least a half-dozen states now allow virtual visitations. Leving hopes the Illinois law will be a model for other states, and he says it has several applications. It can help foster relationships between military parents who are separated from their children, he said.

Leving also hopes it can be used by incarcerated parents looking to maintain a relationship with their kids. But for critics, it still raises a question: does a text message or a web chat give divorced parents an excuse not to spend time face to face with their children?

Bonding Over the Internet Next Best Thing to Parenting in Person

"Contact through a Web camera is just not a substitute for face to face contact," said Bruce Boyer, the director of Loyola Child Law Clinic. He, and some other legal experts, fear judges could use this new law to bar or limit in-person visits for some parents, or use it to allow parental contact in cases where it might not be beneficial for children.

But for many, the technology has been a godsend, a way to play an active role when separated by distance or circumstance.

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