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No Virtue in 'Virtual Visitation' Rights

By Glenn Sacks and Dianna Thompson, Boston Globe, July 12, 2002

This week's "virtual visitation" ruling by a Massachusetts court points to a new and dangerous trend in family law - judges permitting mothers to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers and justifying the separation by ordering Internet video conferencing as a purported substitute for a father's time with his children.

In her ruling, Judge E. Chouteau Merrill awarded a Boston-area woman sole custody of her three small children and gave her permission to move the children 225 miles away. Merrill granted two weekend visits a month to Paul, the ex-husband and father of the couple's 5-year-old son and twin 2-year-old daughters. The children will be moved to Long Island.

Paul's standard weekday visitation right was replaced by a right to "virtual visits" on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. Merrill explained that the computer conferences will be relatively cheap and will allow Paul to read to his children and help them with their homework.

According to Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, virtual visitation is the "cutting edge of divorce law" and will "become accepted and possibly even commonplace over the next few years."

Hundreds of thousands of divorced dads like Paul are victims of "move-away moms" who either do not value their children's relationships with their fathers, place their own needs above those of their children, or use geography as a method of driving fathers out of their children's lives. The misplaced use of virtual visitation as a rationalization for the troubled consciences of both move-away moms and family court judges will exacerbate the problem.

In one highly publicized case, a self-deluded mother said that virtual visitation allowed her to "feel more comfortable that I'm not destroying my son's relationship with his father" by deciding to move away. It seems unlikely that, were the situations reversed, she would be happy with biweekly virtual visitations.

Even if one accepts the Merrill ruling's dubious rationale, virtual visitation opens up endless opportunities for interference by custodial parents.

Today many divorced dads endure the heartache of being told that they cannot see their children because they always have "dentist appointments" or "birthday parties to attend" during their scheduled visitation times. In the era of virtual visitation, there will be an inordinately large number of technical problems with custodial parents' Web cameras, and the repair shops will be operating at an unusually slow pace.

When such interference occurs, divorced dads' only recourse will be to scrape together the money to go back to court. However, it is doubtful that many judges will be willing to hold a mother in contempt of court for not fixing her computer.

In addition, for Paul (and other fathers of young children), the video conferencing will be almost impossible to do without the presence and assistance of Paul's ex-wife. No doubt he does not want to share what few precious moments he has with his children with the woman who took them so far away from him.

Nor can Paul and men like him easily move to be closer to his children. Paul bears a child support burden of nearly $2,000 a month (perhaps he should ask Judge Merrill if he can pay "virtual child support") and could easily fall behind if he moves to New York and cannot quickly find a well-paying job.

Because Massachusetts noncustodial parents with past-due child support are assessed interest at 12 percent annually, as well as penalties at 6 percent annually, arrearages mount rapidly. And even if Paul does move to New York, there is no guarantee that his ex-wife will let him see his children, and getting courts to enforce visitation rights is often difficult.

Despite the approval of many judges, legal experts, and women's advocates (who oppose laws restricting a custodial mother's right to move her children), this Orwellian Massachusetts ruling serves only to divide fathers from their children. As one divorced dad noted:

"I want to hug my children, not wave to them through a computer screen. Virtual visitation sounds a lot like visiting from the inside of a jail cell. No, in a jail cell you can stick your arm out between the bars and hold your child's hand. A virtual dad can't even do that."


Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues. Dianna Thompson is the founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children.


Father to appeal 'virtual visitation'

Says video chats no substitute

By Michele Kurtz, Globe Correspondent and Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, The Boston Globe, July 11, 2002


A father who was ordered by a judge last week to have "virtual visitation" with his three children once they move to New York with their mother said yesterday he'll appeal the decision.

"It shouldn't be a substitute for physical contact," said Paul Cleri, of Canton. "It certainly could be a great idea to augment physicial visits, but it certainly shouldn't be done in lieu of what the children are used to and what the father is used to. ... I never went more than a couple days without seeing the children."

In an unusual order, Norfolk Probate and Family Court Judge E. Chouteau Merrill last week granted Cleri and his wife, Lorraine, of Needham, a divorce and granted him video conferences with his 5-year-old son and twin 2-year-old daughters twice a week, in addition to two weekend visits a month.

Until the divorce, which involved a heated custody dispute, Paul Cleri shared custody of the children, often seeing them four or five days a week, he said yesterday.

"I did all the things a normal parent would do - cooked meals for them, potty trained, read nighttime stories," he said.

Lorraine Cleri's lawyer, David Cherny, said his client wants to move back to her hometown on Long Island to be near her extended family. He predicted  that the controversial virtual visits - which were her idea in this case - will become increasingly common.

This worries Paul Cleri's lawyer, Lisa Poblocki. "If the trend continues, it makes it almost a slam-dunk, I think, for the custodial parent to move," she said.

The Cleri case is apparently not the first time a Massachusetts judge has ordered virtual visitation. Last August, Judge Nancy M. Gould, an associate justice in Suffolk Probate and Family Court, granted a similar custody arrangement between a man and his ex-wife, who was planning to move to California with their 10-year-old son.

Gould gave the mother, Amy S. Looker, custody of the boy and established a visitation schedule for the father, Steven M. Chevalier. But she also ordered the mother to pay for video equipment and cameras that would allow Chevalier to talk to his son face-to-face - via a Web camera or a videophone - on a regular basis.

The idea occurred to Gould after she read a magazine article about "virtual" possibilities in other fields.

"It's not a substitute for face-to-face visitation, and I'll never say it is," Gould said yesterday, adding that the on-camera sessions supplemented an extensive visitation schedule. "It's difficult. You're dealing with two coasts."

'Virtual visitation' backed: Judge adds 'link' to child custody ruling
By David Weber, The Boston Herald, July 10, 2002


In the first decision of its kind in a child custody case in Massachusetts, a judge has ruled that a Needham woman must maintain a computer video link with her divorced husband as a condition of her being allowed to move to New York with their three children.

The decision by Norfolk Probate and Family Court Judge E. Chouteau Merrill required the divorced parents to set up interactive computer equipment in their respective homes so their 5-year-old son and twin 2-year-old daughters will have a higher degree of twice-weekly contact with their father than that afforded by telephone calls or written correspondence.

"You can't hug a computer, but this is a way to assist the non-custodial parent in being a part of the children's day-to-day activities," said attorney David Cherny of Atwood & Cherny, who represented Lorraine Cleri in the divorce and custody case against her ex-husband, Paul Cleri.

Cherny said the novel judicial solution is important because "it recognizes that we live in a very mobile society and that courts and people are looking for ways to help children maintain contact with their non-custodial parents."

The divorce judgment, which was issued July 2 and received in the mail by the lawyers yesterday, calls for Lorraine Cleri to have her children available for "virtual visitation" on Tuesdays and Thursday between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Each parent is required to purchase the necessary computer equipment to provide video and audio contact during the "visits."

"This would allow (the father) to do things like read to the children andsee them playing in their environment," Cherny said.

The divorce judgment also provides for Paul Cleri to have the children in Massachusetts on the first weekend of every month and to visit them in New York on the third weekend of each month.

Cherny said Lorraine Cleri proposed the "virtual visits" as a result of her husband's opposition to her moving back to Long Island, where she grew up and still has supporting family, as well as a new job offer.

Paul Cleri objected to his ex-wife being allowed to move out of Massachusetts because it would drastically reduce the amount of contact he desired with his children. He also opposed the "virtual visitation" solution when his ex-wife first proposed it in court.

Paul Cleri had sought primary custody of all three children in the case.

Neither Paul Cleri nor his attorney, Lisa Poblocki of Poblocki & Lydon in Quincy, could be reached for comment yesterday.

Cherny said he knows of only one other divorce case in which a judge used computerized "virtual visitation" to resolve custody issues. That case was in New Jersey.

"Today computers have become an extension of our daily lives. It is only natural that parents and courts would adopt the means of 'virtual visitation' as one more way to help non-custodial parents separated geographically from their children maintain ongoing contact with their children," Cherny said.

"Certainly this is superior to telephone contact, and one step away from being there."

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