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Virtual visitations: children and access in the internet age

There’s no denying that divorce can be difficult, and it’s often made more so when there are children involved. But what if your soon-to-be ex-spouse, as well as angling for sole residency, wanted to take your children out of the country?

This is a reality for some divorced parents in the UK. Previously, taking children abroad would have denied the non-resident parent access. However, with the rise of social media and video messaging software such as Skype and FaceTime, judges seem to think that living in separate countries will not spell the end for parent-child relationships.

The trend started in 2002, when Michael Gough of Utah asked the court that video calls be part of his custody agreement. With his ex-wife wanting to take the children to Wisconsin, Gough wanted assurances that he would remain in contact with them, and at the time, video conferencing wasn’t cheap. In 2004 the equipment required for these virtual visitations, including web cams and audio devices, came to approximately $700 (around £390 by the average 2004 exchange rate), so having those expenses taken care of was a win for Gough.

However, in today’s world, video call software can be downloaded for free, and most laptops and smart phones come with built-in speakers, microphones and cameras. 2011 marked the dawn of the ‘Skype dads’ in the UK when Sir Nicholas Wall, then President of the Family Division, rejected a father’s request that his children’s mother be prevented from taking them to live with her in Australia. The decision was based on the fact that programs such as Skype meant the move would not lead to the destruction of the children's relationship with their father.

This is, of course, an extreme example. As I have noted before, in the vast majority of cases, couples resolve residency issues without the need for legal intervention. That said, the 2011 case was not a one off, with a similar case last year being ruled in favour of the Swedish parents wishing to return to her home country with her British-born children. While these are rare occurrences, as technology continues to grow and develop we will surely start to see it coming into play in family court hearings more and more often.

Read more about child custody here

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