Judge to Dad: ‘Visitation’ via Skype is Good Enough

I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ but…

Back in November I did this piece about what had become a familiar refrain – that non-custodial parents can “visit” their children via the Internet and, if they’ve got the equipment, Skype (Fathers and Families, 11/4/10). 

I reprised the history of move-aways in which custodial parents thwart visitation by the non-custodial parent by the simple expedient of moving far away.  As I said, courts have begun requiring evidence that a move-away won’t harm the child and, if the move-away is granted, balancing dad’s time lost with, for example, longer summer contact.

Of course chatting with your kid on the Internet or face to face on Skype is fine as long as it’s just taking the place of a usual nighttime telephone call.  But I was concerned that judges would start granting move-aways again and justifying them with the claim that ‘virtual visitation’ is as good as the real kind.

Now, no serious person believes that talking to a child for a few minutes a night via Skype constitutes actual parenting.  Indeed, the thrust of almost all social science on the subject of parenting post-divorce is toward greater equalization of time and responsibilities between the two parents.  That”s because the post-divorce legal paradigm of the non-custodial parent having visitation every other weekend plus Wednesday night has made the NC parent more of a babysitter than a parent.

To state the obvious, pretending that Skype is an acceptable substitute for hands-on parenting will only make a bad situation worse – far worse.  Put simply, this is an idea that cannot be allowed to take hold.  The divorce and custody system does far too much already to marginalize non-custodial fathers in their children’s lives.  Returning to move-aways under the pretense that Skype provides “good enough” parenting would be outrageous.

Sadly, that’s exactly what happened in this case (Daily Mail, 3/31/11).  In it the mother, who predictably has primary custody, wants to move from England to Australia.  The father passionately pleaded that her doing so would destroy his relationship with his two children.  And the lower court agreed with him.

At Exeter County Court, Judge David Tyzack QC agreed that the children were at a critical stage in their links with their father.

He said the bond between the youngsters and the paternal side of their family would be severely damaged if they emigrated. Any departure would be a ‘grave loss”.

But the appellate court – according to the appellate court – knows better.

The country”s most senior  family judge yesterday told a father fighting to stop his former partner taking their children to Australia that he could keep in touch with them via Skype…

The leading judge said he ‘did not minimise” the father”s objections but added that modern ways of keeping in touch meant the  children”s move would not destroy their relationship.

Well isn’t that special. 

This judge is the top family court judge in the United Kingdom and presumably an adult.  And yet he seems unaware that “keeping in touch” and parenting aren’t the same thing.  Does he have kids?  Is that how he was a dad?  He changed diapers via Skype?  He helped with homework via Skype?  He heard important confidences long-distance?  Tucked them in via Skype?

If that’s not bad enough – and surely it is – someone needs to explain to Judge Wall that courts must do more than simply “not destroy the relationship” between father and child.  Does the honorable judge not think that sets the bar rather too low?  Where does he find it in the law that ‘not destroying’ the relationship between a father and his children is an adequate basis for ruling in a case?

Maybe he should take another look at the findings of the lower court, that the children were at an important stage in the relationship with their dad and that any move would constitute a “grave loss.”  But of course Judge Wall already knew that.  He just substituted his own opinion for those of the lower court judge who, after all, was the one to hear the witnesses and judge their credibility.

Into the bargain, what the case is all about is not the kids but the mother.

The mother said she would be ‘devastated” if her plans to go to Australia with her children were not allowed…

The mother had said she felt  ‘isolated, trapped and depressed in England” and Sir Nicholas added the children clearly wanted to go with her.

These are pre-teen children, and as such are not usually consulted by courts regarding their preferences about custody matters.  So the situation is that she feels depressed in England and thinks that Australia is the land of milk and honey.  Fine. 

But she also wants her emotional state to dictate not only the children’s lives but the father’s relationship with his kids.  If that sounds to you like more power than one person should have, I think you’re right.

So it’s worth noting that the court apparently never considered letting the mother go and leaving the kids with dad.  No, Skype’s good enough for him.  Would it be good enough for her?  Would it be acceptable to her and the court for him to keep the kids and her communicate with them online?Somehow I doubt that either she or Judge Wall would think so.

And that truly is the proverbial bottom line.  This judge brings a double standard based on sex to his rulings in family court. 

The court’s attitude toward this father and fathers generally is all too tellingly reflected in the words he uses.  For a father, “keeping in touch” with your kids is all you need to do – that and sending the check regularly, of course.  If you’re a dad, your kids are really more like friends or acquaintances with which you might want to correspond regularly.  You don’t want to lose track of them, so you “keep in touch.”

According to this judge, as a father, you have no special attachment to your children and they have none to you.  ‘Keeping in touch’ is enough.  Do you passionately plead otherwise?  Do countless social scientists support you?  Does the lower court agree?  Too bad, the judge knows better.

Children benefit from involved, hands-on fathers.  A flickering image on a computer screen for a few minutes every so often is not the same and it is not good enough.

And it is not remotely acceptable for a judge to substitute his own patently anti-father sentiments for fifty years of social science on the value of fathers to children.  ‘Virtual visitation’ must be stopped in its tracks.

Thanks to Malcolm for the heads-up.

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