Attorneys: Internet A Benefit in Custody Cases

From – Missouri Lawyers Weekly

by Geri Dreiling

October 1, 2001

A growing number of Missouri lawyers are recommending electronic mail to divorced parents as a way of communicating with each other and with a child who is at the other parent’s home.

E-mail is viewed as a “safe” way for parents to talk about child-related issues when there is a history of domestic violence or an order of protection has been entered.  Even if there is no history of domestic violence, some practitioners indicate that it can facilitate discussion between parents whose relationship is strained.  And e-mail removes the need for a third party to relay messages between warring parents.

The medium also provides a transcript that can be reviewed by counsel or the court if a dispute later arises between the parents.

“Electronic mail works very well for parents trying to set things up and deal with kid issues,” said St. Louis attorney Barbara Graham.  “And if one parent gets harassing in the e-mail, you have a record.”

In addition, electronic mail can be a private way for parents to speak to their children without worrying about eavesdropping and, unlike telephone contact, there are no missed phone calls.

Electronic Feasibility

Computers and Internet access may not be economically feasible for some Missouri families.  However, as more households report owning at least one computer and many parents use electronic mail at work, St. Louis attorney Leigh Joy Carson said that electronic mail is “something we need to consider.”

Carson said social workers involved in family law cases are also encouraging parents to e-mail each other.

In a case she is currently handling, Carson said that the parents were finding that speaking to each other was too difficult.  But after working with the social worker, the couple began using e-mail.

At first, the social worker was copied in on the correspondence, so she could monitor how the two were communicating with each other.  Carson said that her client had been claiming that the spouse was acting in a “hideous” fashion, which the social worker was able to confirm through the correspondence.

Barbara Graham, a St. Louis family law attorney, has also recommended e-mail for her clients.

Graham said that she and her client settled on e-mail after the client obtained an order of protection against his wife.

“Talking on the phone did not work for them,” Graham said, but the couple had four kids and needed to talk frequently.

“I told my client that if he received harassing e-mails, he could always hit delete or print it out to save it as a record,” Graham said.

St. Louis County associate circuit judge Michael Burton has ordered parties to communicate by electronic mail and agreed that having a transcript of the interactions between the parties is an advantage.

He noted that e-mail is a “safeguard that is good when couples can’t deal with each other.”

Another advantage, Burton said, is that it cuts out the need for a third party to act as an intermediary between the couple.

“Before e-mail, a couple might constantly deal with each other through other people,” Burton said.

He noted that if a dispute erupted between the parties, there was also a chance that the third party’s testimony and recollections would be biased against one of the parents, which made resolving the problem even more difficult for the court.

Some family law attorneys indicated that Missouri judges are skeptical of using web cameras and the Internet as a substitute for parental contact or as a meaningful means of contact of the custodial parent wants to relocate.  However, the same skepticism doesn’t apply to using e-mail as an additional way for parents and children to “talk.”

Carson said that she represents a mother who has e-mail correspondence with her daughter.

Noting that her client was concerned that the father was listening in on the telephone conversations between the mother and daughter, Carson suggested they ask the father “to set up a private account.”

Carson said, “I think American Online offers seven free names to subscribers.”

Moreover, Yahoo! and Hotmail offer free electronic mail services.

“I think even for little kids, it is neat to have your own address,” Carson said.  “I encourage my clients to help kids scan pictures in and send them to dad.”

The immediacy required by the telephone is also circumvented by e-mail.  Frequently, a time will be set for a child to receive phone calls from a parent.  However, Carson said, the hectic schedules of both children and parents can make it difficult for the parties to connect.

“You can e-mail whenever you want,” and answer it when you want, Carson said.

As a family law practitioner, Carson has come to view the computer as a “tremendous asset” for clients who use them.

And for those clients who don’t have a computer, Carson noted, “They are paying me thousands and thousands of dollars.  I think it is a good investment to spend $800 on a basic computer with Internet access.”