For many years, a difficulty in Maryland family court has been figuring out a workable system of visitation for parents when one parent moves out of state. Many families face this challenge when one parent gets a job out of state. Since the rise of video conferencing technologies and electronic communication, a common trend in other states has been judge-approved “virtual visitation.” Virtual visitation is essentially cyber-parenting in which a non-custodial parent uses personal video conference, a video phone or a webcam to visit with a child.
This type of visitation is used as a supplement to in-person visitation over holidays and the summer break, but is not a replacement for those real visits. However, a non-custody parent can virtually read a child a story or talk about his or her daily adventures or disappointments, thereby strengthening their relationship.
The concept of virtual visitation was first codified in the state of Utah and next to follow was Wisconsin. The latter encourages courts to use the availability of electronic communication as a factor in decisions regarding custody and parenting time. Virtual visitation has been codified in at least six states. Many other states are revising their legislation to incorporate virtual visitation.
In most states, the availability of virtual visitation is not the primary factor for determining a custody and visitation schedule. However, the judge will incorporate virtual visitation, including days and times, into any schedule that it does make. Maryland is in the draft bill stage for a law regarding virtual visitation.
If virtual visitation is incorporated into Maryland law, it will likely be subject to what the child’s best interests are. For example, if there may be concerns regarding electronic visitation when a non-custodial parent has previously had problems with sexual abuse or stalking, it may be withheld.
A pre-draft bill from May 2013 required a court to make a specific finding as to whether or not there is any likelihood of further child abuse or neglect. Under the terms of the bill, only if the court makes a finding of no such likelihood will custody or visitation rights be granted. However, the court may approve supervised visitation and an electronic communication schedule that is certain to maintain the child’s safety and wellbeing.
The pre-draft bill included other requirements. It specifically precludes consideration of virtual visitation when determining child support and it also notes that the court may not consider electronic visitation to justify or support a custodial parent who wants to move out of the area. It also requires parents to either agree on whether electronic equipment is available to help facilitate virtual visitation or submit the matter to the court to decide.
Critics of virtual visitation have feared that codifying virtual visitation will open the gates to permitting custodial parents to move out of state away from the non-custodial parent in all circumstances. This issue first came to the country’s attention when in a non-Maryland case McCoy v. McCoy, a divorced mother asked the court whether she could move her child from New Jersey to California. She proposed that the father have daily communication with the child via webcam. The court in that case found the plan “creative and innovative.” Based on the pre-draft bill discussed above, however, this may not be a decision supported by the public policy in Maryland. Time will tell if Maryland will move in the same direction as many other states and codify virtual visitation.
If you are dealing with divorce or other family law issues, the advice and help of an experienced Maryland family law attorney can make a world of difference. Contact our office via the online form for a legal consultation.
Limited Divorce in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, September 17, 2013
Terminating Parental Rights in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, August 6, 2013