Meet the Skype Dads: a new sorrow of divorce in the internet age

Is a video call an adequate substitute for a seeing your children in person? Some judges seem to think so

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

Could you be a useful and loving father to your children if you only ever saw them on a computer screen? Most of us would say no. So much of being a parent is about being physically there. It’s curious then that our courts seem to think the opposite — that a chat via Skype or on an iPad is all a father needs to bond with and care for his child.

British judges, like American ones, have to deal with increasingly complicated custody cases every year. We travel more these days, and so we meet our partners abroad. When these marriages break up (as four in ten marriages do), a foreign wife often longs to take the kids and head back home. In the past, when a custody case like this came to court, a judge might have said no, on the grounds that the children must be in reach of their father. But these days the fashion is for ruling in favour of ‘virtual visitations’. A mother can move where she likes, say our judges, and take the children with her, because the requirement for contact is fulfilled by a video call.

It’s a desperate situation for the fathers. I’ve spoken to several ‘Skype Dads’ who say this form of contact means not really being a dad at all — more of an evening duty, a badly flickering TV programme. I spoke to one Skype Dad, David, who talks to his young sons on screen twice a week. The boys are seven and eight and now live in Sweden with their Swedish mother. David, back in England, says he can feel his relationship with them deteriorating weekly: ‘It’s the worst form of torture for a parent.’

Skype Dads have been common in the United States and Canada since 2002, where video calls were at first a lifeline for fathers with children living in different states. Michael Gough was the first Skype Dad. When he and his wife divorced in 2002, she asked the Utah courts for permission to move to Wisconsin with their four-year-old daughter. Gough, a software security specialist working for Hewlett Packard, was aware of a bit of kit called NetMeeting, used for video conference calls. He asked the judge for regular NetMeetings with his daughter. By the time the case reached the courts, it was 2003 and the US news networks were reporting from Baghdad. The judge was not convinced by Gough’s proposal. ‘Is it anything like the CNN satellite feed from Iraq? Because that’s crap. I’m not ordering that.’ Undaunted, Michael set up two laptops at either end of the courtroom and demonstrated how it would work. The judge agreed to include video calls in the custody agreement.

Skype was launched later that same year. The technology was expensive. In 2004, the average cost of building a ‘virtual visitation system’ with audio equipment and web cameras was around $700. Today, Skype and similar services such as Facetime are free to download, and you can use one on pretty much any laptop, smartphone or tablet.

It took some years for UK courts to catch up. The first high-profile case in this country was overseen by family judge Sir Nicholas Wall in 2011 and it was in this first case that the idea of virtual visitation went wrong. Newspapers reported his judgement under the headline: ‘Let them use Skype.’ The case involved a father who lived in Devon who wanted to stop his former partner taking their two children to Australia. Sir Nicholas was persuaded by the mother’s lawyers that technology would allow the family to keep in touch. The children would return to the UK for one month a year to stay with their father. For the other 11 months, ‘Contact by Skype, post and otherwise would be arranged.’ The judge was certain that neither the UK nor Australian courts would ‘sit idly by and allow the relationship to wither’.

But Michael Robinson, author of The Custody Minefield, says that all too often a parent gives assurances to an English court only to abandon them the moment their plane touches down elsewhere — particularly if the divorce has been acrimonious. And pursuing a custody case abroad, he says, is always a nightmare and sometimes impossible.

One British father, Andrew, told me he had not seen his children for over two years after his marriage broke down while he was working in Singapore. In the divorce settlement, he obtained a Singaporean court order to visit the children and to have unlimited Skype time. His wife then moved with the children to Oman, which does not recognise the court order.

He is now preparing to spend thousands of pounds going through the Omani court system. He told me he was desperate and that his only real hope was to wait until the children were old enough to contact him independently.

Contact by Skype is often a frustrating experience. How can a father build and develop a relationship on screen?

Adam is a case in point. He’s spoken to his young son in Australia once a week for the past three years. Adam speaks to his son late on a Friday night; early on a Saturday morning in Australia and he says the time difference is very difficult. ‘You know what it’s like. A small child wakes up and wants to run around. You are also very limited to seeing one aspect of a child’s life — I have never seen him in a school uniform, except in photos. I have never picked him up from school and probably never will.’

Then there’s the hidden, perhaps anxiously controlling presence of the ex. Several fathers told me they were aware of the mother of their children hovering in the background — just an arm visible on the edge of the screen. It rather precludes spontaneous, relaxed chatting.

Some judges may now have realised that virtual visitation has limitations. Earlier this year, Judge Roderic Wood denied a mother permission to take her two-year-old son to Hong Kong. She had argued that the boy could keep in touch with his father with internet video calls and visits. The judge ruled, ‘I do not believe this mother once in Hong Kong, if given permission, would adhere to the contact regime prefigured in her case.’

He added: ‘As counsel notes in her closing submissions, “You can’t hug Skype.”’ You don’t have to be a touchy-feely type to see the point.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Mr TaxPayer

    I have had to live away Mon-Fri through work for the last 3 yearsas my children grew from 9/6 to 12/9, and while Skpe has been a god-send in terms of helping my family cope with my absence, it is NOT a substitute for me being there for any party.

    This is madness. How about judges try conducting trials or hearings via Skype? No, thought not.

  • Nick Langford

    Let us hope that more judges follow Roderick Wood’s lead in Re R (A Child:
    Relocation) [2015] EWHC 456.

  • Bruno_Ditri

    British Relocation Law has progressed significantly in the past five years. The importance of both natural parents in a child’s development is now better recognised, and the overriding importance once placed upon the wishes of a relocating parent has been moderated. A turning point came with Re D (Children) 2010 EWCA Civ 50, in which the litigant-in-person father presented Sir Nicholas Wall with a plethora of child-centric psychological, sociological and developmental research. Sir Nicholas found this evidence – and the arguments presented by the father – as being “compelling” for a review of Relocation Law. That review came a year later in Re K (Children) 2011 EWCA Civ 793, in which Re D was cited. It is distressing that a number of judges still view indirect contact (Skype, telephone, emails, letters) as being adequate for the maintenance and promotion of a warm and loving relationship between children and their parents. I wonder if those same judges would be happy to conduct their own marital and familial relationships on the same basis.

    • Cyril Sneer

      ” The importance of both natural parents in a child’s development is now better recognised”

      It had been recognised for centuries until the left came along and deliberately and purposely undermined and reduced the role of the father to a cash cow and second class citizens to mothers.

      As always society will reap the whirlwind.

      • Kennybhoy

        “As always society will reap the whirlwind.”

        Aye. As I wrote over by on another thread, “and we call the Islamists barbarians”…

  • Judges in the family courts are laughing at men. Hardly surprising to see militant men converting to islam and islam booming in prison. These individuals, who call themselves judges need to be named and shamed.

    The family courts should be held in public so that we all know what developments are occurring in what is a fundamental area of social policy. These prats are not elected, not bright and hide behind secrecy.

    Publicise your case, break the law, what is there to lose?

    I know what I’d cut.

  • Cyril Sneer

    My brief foray into the family justice system taught me one thing that as a father who actually wants to be with his child I am a 2nd class citizen in the eyes of the family justice courts. My solicitor told me unless I have bottomless pockets, unless I can prove the mother is a drunk, or a drug addict, or unsafe to parent I could in effect end up far worse off. The reason why I went to see a solicitor? I didn’t want to be reduced from 3 nights a week to 4 nights a month simply because my daughter had started school. I had even bought a house to live near her!

    The family ‘justice’ system no longer recognises how essential fathers are to a childs upbringing. A nation with increasing numbers of fatherless children, broken families, feckless youth. We are now purely seen as cash cows.

    The left have dismantled and undermined the cornerstones of a civilised society, marriage and the family unit.

    I will never forgive the establishment for essentially telling me I have no rights over my own flesh and blood.

    UKIP have it right, shared parenting status by default for all parents who have split up.

    Don’t even get me started on the atrocious and nasty CSA – the people who for 3 months running lost the money I had sent, denied I had even sent it and made me prove to them the money had been sent by viewing my bank account statement. Fortunately I was able to make a private arrangement with the mother and we both told the CSA to go f ck themselves!

    Months after they started harassing me again saying that i hadn’t paid for months and I owed thousands of pounds so I literally had to get the mother to call them as they simply would not believe any evidence I produced. A disgusting, vile, sexist organisation that needs to be destroyed.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Yet another reason to hate it and leave it.

    • Bibliofilen

      Perhaps men ought to stay at home more and be there for their kids. Then they wouldn’t be seen as a lower class of parents when people divorce eachother.

  • Feminister

    Want to be the primary carer after divorce? Be the primary carer before divorce.

    • Kennybhoy

      Go frack yersel loon!

    • thetrashheap

      Want an income after the divorce get a job.

      Same principle.

  • Feminister

    kids need a settled life not being moved every few days because their father can’t keep his pants up or do half the house work.

    • Kennybhoy

      Go frack yersel!

  • FreeKip

    In the end, as the father you dont matter in the eyes of the state and the mother will never really be stopped from destroying your relationship with your child.
    50/50 shared parenting is a step in the right direction atleast although it will be too late for many if it ever does happen. Still, worth supporting that fight.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    In UK, kids who needs um! Authority make being a parent awn endless source of grief.

  • Zed largo

    Reassuring to know that a judge, along with the majority of informed people, rejects the idea that screens and voices are substitutes for tactile contact. Communication by touch, smell and the somatic senses are so much more powerful and emotionally real than words and pictures, especially for developing children. How alarming is it to see children used by parents, most horrifyingly so by mothers, to punish and wreak revenge on each other. The children pick this up, although that can’t grasp or describe their feelings as they see such hateful behaviour. They know something is wrong but must live with the confusion and chaos as an unknown and unexpressed pain. And we wonder why our world is ravaged by human beings who make hell in selfishness, ignorance and anger.

  • Christian

    Although men don’t understand this until they divorce, nowadays it’s wives who “own” the children (and the house they live in), not their husbands. If men were encouraged to acknowledge this reality before they married, they would feel less anger and less sense of betrayal and injustice when they had to lose their children in divorce: but there would also be fewer children and less paternal commitment to them, less love; there would be fewer marriages, and fewer happy brides.

    It used once to be that women who married gave (and surrendered) their children to their husbands, and returning to that system is the only way to return meaning to the practice of marriage.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      So marriage is like a private pension scheme: Fine until you want to cash out.

  • Terrible. My parents divorced and my standard of living immediately tanked for the duration; I had to put up with substandard men as they wafted in and out of my mother’s life (by the way, I’ve cut her out of mine); and my father, the rational one in the pairing, was not there to see that I was properly schooled, which is a major sore point with me (I was sent to a flower-power school which did nothing for my prospects in life). I also missed my father, even though we had regularly scheduled visits, like going to the dentist particularly often. That is not how children want to see the other most significant person in their lives. Divorce is bad news, and should not be undertaken lightly (another reason why I have no respect left for my mother: she didn’t care about anybody else).

    Skype is a strange and uniquely wonderful resource. I was raised in N. America apart from my English family (another complaint I have with my parents, esp. my mother who by divorcing in the way she did made it permanent), and that meant that phone calls were rare and they were ludicrously expensive (we watched the clock and counted the minutes). They were also poor because whenever you spoke, you found yourself talking over the other person: there was a sound lag. But Skype is instantaneous, and it’s got a visual, and it’s free! Unthinkable for the whole time that I was growing up and very young (70s, 80s, early 90s).

    But the idea that Skype is like a visit with your father: how can it be? Better than nothing, but not at all like doing things together, milling around each other, not ‘performing’. What the h-ll are these judges thinking?

  • trace9

    At its best the Internet can be only a virtual good life, at its worst a real torture.

  • Daniel

    Those womb transplants into men suddenly seem a lot more rational now… the desolation I’ve seen devastating a close friend makes me wish I could do this alone