Jeanne M. Hannah | Traverse City Family Lawyer

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Virtual Visitation: A Threat or a Way to Preserve a Parent-Child Relationship Despite Distance?

By: Jeanne M. Hannah, J.D.

Copyright 2005 Jeanne M. Hannah. All rights reserved.


Jeanne M. Hannah is a family law lawyer located in Traverse City, Michigan, who handles divorce, child custody, paternity, adoption, neglect, and other family law matters, and who assists fathers and mothers to exercise their rights to custody and parenting time.


Active one-on-one communication using cameras, streaming video, etc. has come to be known as "virtual visitation." In Michigan, the term "visitation" gave way a long time ago to the term "parenting time." The idea is that parents parent their children and others more distant in relationship to the children may "visit" the child. But because the terminology is pretty well fixed, I'm going to use the readily accepted, and known term "virtual visitation."

The first time I contemplated the concept of virtual parenting time was in 1994. At that time, I had a client who lived in the San Francisco Bay area whose child lived with the custodial parent in Northern Michigan. The concept was very, very new at that time. I'd like to be able to report that this idea worked. Certainly, we had a court system willing to consider it. What we did not have was a cooperative custodial parent. The potential for setting up and keeping a computer and camera in working order seemed daunting, if not impossible. My client decided not to fight because any and all of his parenting time occurred with stiff opposition from the mother, cost a lot of money and anguish for my client, and also caused the child anxiety that was transferred as a result of the parents' conflict.

In today's extraordinarily mobile society, however, I believe that virtual visitation is not only necessary in order to preserve a good parent-child relationship, but is also something that most people have the skills to facilitate. Certainly as fathers gain more custodial rights and far greater parenting time opportunities than was the case 40 years ago, virtual parenting time is not just possible, it's a concept that can work in most cases. I can see other good uses for it as well: letting a parent who travels a lot in his or her job to check in daily with his or her children, fostering a healthy relationship between children and their grandparents or other relatives, including siblings, who live far away.

Some lawyers view virtual visitation as a threat. In their view, allowing parenting time via the Internet may make it easier for trial courts to permit relocation of the custodial parent, disrupting what might be a solid parent-child relationship. This is an argument that has merit, and should be carefully discussed with a client. It works both ways, too. Your client may wish to relocate. Virtual visitation may make it possible. Your client may have lost a motion for relocation. Virtual visitation may give him or her something back for loss of the parent-child daily contact.

While it is true that hands-on parenting is preferable, sometimes parents just do not have that opportunity. Virtual parenting / virtual visitation may not be as good as the real thing, but it is surely better than phone calls and certainly better than no parenting time. Parents can readily use the internet to maintain contacts with their children. The parents' written settlement agreements can contain provisions for this type of parenting time. These agreements, incorporated into divorce judgments, can build in financial and other incentives to make sure that there is compliance.

As in custody and parenting time arrangements, there are many different forms or possibilities for parent-child contact. Internet parenting time might involve regularly scheduled email sessions; private on-line chatting; instant messaging; creating a website for your child and posting drawings the child has made, poems he has written, etc.; or using a web camera to have audio and visual session -- whether to talk, or to have a parent help a child with a homework assignment or to play interactive multiplayer games.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I had the opportunity to discuss at length the concept of virtual visitation with a father, Guy Rawson, a flight attendant for Aloha Airlines who must spend 10 overnights a month away from his children. He explained to me how he uses a video-conferencing program to talk to his children every morning to send them off to school and preschool, and how, every night, he talks about them about their day, reads them a story before bedtime, and helps his wife tuck them in. I was impressed. It reminded me of an evening when just before sitting down for dinner at my house, David Lawrence, then publisher of he Detroit Free Press, called his young children to see how their day had gone and to say goodnight -- as the soup was getting cold, mind you.

I asked Guy to share his experiences with virtual visitation with you. I'm sure there's even more that he could tell you -- things that I don't quite understand such as how to communicate as though you were sitting next to your child when you read the story -- the same kind of technology used to do conferencing.

Here's Guy's explanation of how virtual visitation works -- the "mechanics"

Guy gave me a couple of examples of how he stays in touch with his kids

"Merry Christmas Ash"


"Good Morning, Boys"


Join Hello World to use streaming video mail and other options.

For more information about video emails, streaming video visits, etc., contact Guy Rawson

News Coverage on Virtual Visitation

With work and the school week behind them, Charles A. Mason III and his daughter, Arielle, who live more than 1,500 miles apart, prepared for their scheduled weekend visit. There was no packing involved, no plane tickets, no car rides or drop-offs. All it took was some instant messaging on their home computers and a little fidgeting in front of their respective Webcams, and father and daughter were chatting, playing checkers and practicing multiplication tables.

Read the entire article from the New York Times about how virtual parenting time is working for one dad and his daughter: "Weekends with Dad, Courtesy of D.S.L., by Lynette Clemetson, published March 19, 2006.

See also,

" 'Virtual' visits for children of divorce pushed in several states"
By Ann Sanner of the Associated Press, March 1, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Divorce put David List and his 2-year-old daughter on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and he worried that she would soon forget him.

She hasn't, though. List's divorce agreement guaranteed him ``virtual visitation'' -- the chance to talk with his daughter through an Internet video connection -- and he and Ruby Rose, now 5, usually connect at least twice a week. The chats between California and Great Britain sustain them in between their in-person visits, which come only a few times a year. ``When she gets off the plane, I know what she had for dinner last night,'' said List, 49, of Santa Cruz, Calif. ``She'll run right up to me and jump in my arms because I know exactly what she's all about.'' Read More

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Jeanne M. Hannah, Family Lawyer
Postal address:5922 Deer Trail Drive, Traverse City, Michigan 49684 E-mail: jeannemhannah [at]

Practice Areas: Divorce  Custody  Parenting Time  Child Support Post-Judgment Modifications  Paternity  Adoption  Personal Protection Orders  Spousal Support  Property Distribution  Pre-Nuptial / Post-Nuptial Agreements Estate Planning Guardianships/Conservatorships  Neglect/Abuse Cases 

This web site is designed for general information only. The information presented at this site should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Send mail to jeannemhannah [at] with questions or comments about this web site.



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