Turn on the computer for a visit from Dad

"Reach out and touch someone," that old telephone-company slogan, is taking on new meaning these days in the world of divorce.

When noncustodial fathers and their out-of-state children can't get together in person, a few are reaching out electronically through teleconferencing. Instead of simply talking on the phone – so 20th century – faraway dads are engaging in "virtual visits" with them, via videocams. So 21st century.

Smile, you're on Noncustodial Camera.

Last week a judge in Massachusetts ruled that a newly divorced mother, Lorraine Cleri, can move from suburban Boston to New York with the couple's three young children. Their father, Paul Cleri, will spend two weekends a month, one in Boston, the other on Long Island, with their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old twin daughters.

In addition, on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 6 and 7 p.m., Mr. Cleri will be able to talk to his children and read them stories via videoconference. When they go to school, he'll also be able to help them with homework.

Call him Video-Dad. But don't assume that he likes the arrangement. It isn't fair, Cleri argues, that his former wife is being allowed to move back to her hometown on Long Island, depriving him of normal contact with their children. He is appealing the decision.

In an age of mobility, divorced parents who move away, either through choice or career necessity, are becoming more common. Now that commuter marriages are widely accepted, it's not surprising that commuter parenthood is more visible, too.

"It used to be harder for custodial parents to move out of state with the children," says Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families, a Boston-based group. "Now it's getting easier."

The Cleri case marks the second "virtual visitation" decision in Massachusetts and only the fourth in the nation. The others are in Colorado and New Jersey. Those who track the changing American family expect the trend to continue.

Supporters of virtual visitation see the computer connections, complete with faces on the screen, as an improvement over letters and phone calls. Ms. Cleri's attorney has called it "very creative."

Dr. Holstein, a physician, disagrees. "The idea that children can get effective fathering via teleconferencing is degrading to fathers," he says. "Is what we do for children so trivial that it can be done with a few electronic gadgets?"

The real issue, Holstein says, goes beyond gadgets and videoconferencing. He worries that judges "will buy into the notion that teleconferencing somehow makes moveaways better for children, when it doesn't." This decision, he adds, "tries to fool us into thinking moveaways are OK. They are not OK. They are a terrible idea."

He also cautions that twice-a-month commutes between Boston and Long Island might prove unsustainable and unaffordable in the long run.

Some parental relocations are unavoidable. Already, airlines carry legions of pint-size passengers, called "unaccompanied minors," who fly alone. Many shuttle between their parents' separate homes. During the weeks and months between visits, e-mail and phones must suffice.

Families separated by hundreds of miles experiment and adapt, reading bedtime stories via a webcam and checking homework by fax. Technology can be a boon, connecting parents and children in innovative ways. But it has its limits.

As opponents of virtual visits point out, you can't hug a computer, and it can't hug back. A virtual bedtime kiss from Video-Dad can never replace an in-person hug and kiss. Holstein puts it this way: "Virtual visits may be fine for virtual kids, but these are real kids who need a real dad." Preferably one closer than a five-hour drive away.

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