Like many dads this Father's Day, Michael Gough plans to spend some special time with his daughter Saige, 5. He'll probably read and show her some picture books like "Pocahontas." Maybe they'll play a game of checkers. He might make some goofy faces and tell corny jokes to elicit one of her contagious belly laughs.
Since Gough is divorced, and lives in Salt Lake City, and Saige lives with her mother in Wisconsin, his Father's Day time with her will be high-tech. Several times a week, by court order, no matter where Gough happens to be -- even when he travels as a computer consultant -- he "virtually visits" with his daughter using Web cameras and synchronized voice technology over a high-speed Internet connection. Last September, Gough won the legal right to engage in "Internet visitation" with his daughter.
For Gough, interacting with Saige over the Internet, using inexpensive webcams and microphones so they can see as well as hear each other, helps to ease the pain of divorce. "When I called my daughter up on the telephone, the conversation would last about five minutes and she would often give one-word responses to questions," Gough recalled. "I had very little idea what was really going on in her life."
But once the webcams were installed, their communication became far richer, he says.
"My daughter was even able to virtually visit with her grandparents and great grandparents, something she would have missed without the video call," he says.
Eager to help other parents, particularly fathers, obtain more access to their children without the kind of court battle and legal expenses he incurred, Gough and his attorney, Joyce Maughan, contacted a state legislator in Utah, who introduced a bill that would insert the right to "virtual parent-time" into the state's child custody guidelines. Last month, Utah became the first state in the nation to enact a law recognizing a parent's right to "virtual visitation." Gough proudly calls the legislation "Saige's law."
Gough isn't alone when it comes to choosing virtual visitation as a way of trying to overcome the miles between parents and their children.
Conflict over the right to computer-based communication between parents and children has played a role in at least a dozen court cases in 11 states since 2001. Some parents have offered computer communication as an olive branch in custody battles, and others have fought requests from former spouses for such access on the grounds that a webcam and high-speed Internet connection would violate privacy, would be too expensive or too complicated to install, or would create a hardship by disrupting a child's routine. Two of the best-known cases were in Florida and Massachusetts.
In Orlando in 2000, Tawny Kaleita Sniderman proposed virtual visitation as a custody solution when she sought to move to Ohio with her new husband. She and her attorney did such a good sales job on its benefits that the judge decided in 2001 that she could be the virtual parent, deciding that her then-10-year-old daughter would stay with her father, Gary Kaleita, in Orlando. The mother had sought primary physical custody. But the judge did not award the father everything he wanted. The father had asserted that liberal virtual visitation access would disrupt household schedules. The judge disagreed, giving the mother permission to contact her daughter as often and as long as she wanted.
In the Needham, Mass., case, in 2002, Paul Cleri objected to receiving virtual visitation over physical custody of his three young children who were allowed to move with their mother to New York. Cleri is appealing the decision, claiming that virtual visitation is absolutely no substitute for living with or nearby his children. His lawyer called it a "glorified phone call."
Gough would never argue that virtual visitation is the same as being there, but it's a right worth fighting for, he says. He has created a Web site, www.internetvisitation.org, to push legislation in other states, particularly Wisconsin. He plans to promote the Utah law next month as a model for other states when the National Conference of State Legislators meets in Salt Lake City.
He'll also be in the District this weekend to demonstrate Internet visitation to a group of dads in situations similar to his during the First Men's Rights National Congress (http://www.mensrights2004.com) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But as the Orlando case proved, virtual visitation isn't the sole province of men.
Carrie Ellis is a virtual mom and creator of www.distanceparent.org. She has been using a webcam to communicate for two years now. Her son Kegan, 4, lives partly with his father in Tennessee. She lives in San Diego. Since her son hasn't started kindergarten yet, she has lots of in-person time with him, she says. He's with her all summer until he starts school in Tennessee in the fall.
"When I didn't have the in-person time with Kegan, the webcam kept me sane," she says. "I looked forward to it every week. Now, using better technology, this time apart coming up should be a little more bearable."
Currently, Kegan's father virtually visits with him. "We have regular visitation once or twice a week by webcam -- as well as sometimes special sessions when either my son or the other parent requests it," Ellis says.
She hopes to get to the point where video can be streamed constantly from Kegan's room in Tennessee to her computer in California. "Kegan's father and I work a lot and we are in different time zones. so both of us have cell phones, which have been invaluable. Kegan can call the other parent on his way to school in the morning or on his way home -- or while the other parent is at work."
Some family law specialists have hailed virtual visitation as a peace offering during custody battles.
"Families broken by divorce cannot be put back together in precisely the same way," says Kimberly Shefts, a conflicts analyst with the law firm of Katten, Muchin, Zavis and Rosenman in Chicago, who has been researching the trend in virtual visitation for more than two years for the American Bar Association's Family Law Quarterly. "But virtual visitation is one way children can be protected from feelings of abandonment." In her research, she has come to believe that technology can be used to supplement parent-child relationships in nearly every case. She is researching whether online communication reduces in-person contact, and says so far she has not found many cases where that has occurred.
The National Center for State Courts, an organization charged with helping courts better serve the public, has noted that "courts are increasingly implementing virtual visitation." But some father's rights groups remain skeptical, fearing that virtual visitation will make it easier for mothers to move children out of state. Debates about the pros and cons of high-tech visitation have dominated several online discussion groups.
David Levy, executive director of the Hyasttville-based Children's Rights Council, says the key is whether virtual visitation is a substitute for access, or an aid to real parental access. "Some parents are encouraged to allow a move-away on the promise that there will be e-mail and phone contact, and now webcam access. Parents should oppose such move-aways," he advises.
On the other hand, says Levy, when computer technology truly assists a parent's access to the child, it can indeed help maintain the relationship.
That's certainly been his experience, Gough says.
"The difference is amazing," he says of his and Saige's lives. "I am able to show her things and she is able to show me things. I was able to see the haircut she managed to give herself, her dinosaur outfit that she planned to wear for Halloween and the roar she was ready to give along with it. . . . My first virtual visitation of 20 minutes was better than the previous 18 months of telephone calls combined. I'm able to watch her grow and change.
Jim Buie shares his experience as a "virtual dad," and the experiences of a dozen other families in the book "Virtual Families" and on the Web site, www.virtualfamiliesandfriends.com.