“Since I cannot be present [during the visits], I will not be able to redirect my child to … keep our home location confidential from his father,” she said. Custodial parents are generally not supposed to interfere with noncustodial parents’ visits, and this still applies for children old enough to be on video calls by themselves.
When stay-at-home orders went into effect across the U.S., many parents with shared custody or visitation arrangements were at a loss. They had to adapt to what family lawyers are calling “unprecedented” situations, because many state and local governments haven’t provided direction on how parents who share custody should handle visitation while in quarantine.
In some places that did offer guidance, the new orders meant far more contact than usual for separated couples. Noncustodial parents in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County gained the right to nonphysical, “daily contact” with their children, and Ohio’s Ross County ordered separated parents to communicate about their children’s well-being every day. For many parents, in-person visits changed to virtual ones, in which children Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime with noncustodial parents.
New York hasn’t provided such straightforward guidance, but Sanctuary for Families, a New York–based service provider for people experiencing domestic and gender-related violence, has been getting an increasing number of calls from parents dealing with visitation and custody issues as of early May, according to A’s attorney, Rebecca Moy, who works with the organization. While virtual visits can be trying for any parent to negotiate, intimate-partner-violence survivors face added perils when arranging such visits with their abuser.
Those perils include abusers getting clues about their ex’s life from what they see in the background on video calls, and using them to ask children questions that could jeopardize their parent’s safety, experts say. (Though this danger exists with in-person visits as well, seeing the intimate space of someone’s home may give abusers more detailed information.) Abusers may also direct comments at children that are meant for parents to overhear, potentially retraumatizing those abused by their ex. One way to conceal visuals indoors is by using artificial Zoom backgrounds, but A isn’t confident this feature will serve as a reliable shield, according to Moy.
“It’s an invasion of privacy,” says Heidi Ross, the assistant director of social work at Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Victim Services Program in downtown Manhattan. Not only do video visits give parents an intimate peek into their ex’s life, but they can also give abusers ammunition against their ex. Multiple domestic-violence experts I spoke with described video calls as unique opportunities for abusers to “gather intelligence” on their ex’s living conditions. They can take notes on or even screenshots of things like what the children are eating or who else is in the home.