Are there strategies that can make long distance access work?

This is the second installment of a two-part series

There are many ways a family can organize access even when one parent lives some distance away from the kids. Factors that need to be considered include:

  • Distance
  • The children’s ages
  • Finances
  • Extent of contact before the move
  • History of violence and ongoing safety issues

Generally, it seems the courts favour access that happens regularly throughout the year, in blocks of time that fit with natural breaks in the child’s regular routine. The length of each access visit will generally be longer than if the parent and child lived in close proximity to accommodate for the fact that it is happening less often. For example, if the children are school-age, the distant parent might see them for all of March break as well as for a long stretch in the summer and half of the winter school break.

Often, the courts encourage two to three long visits at the access parent’s home and another in the children’s community, so the kids don’t have to do all the travelling, miss activities that are important to them or not see their friends for long periods of time. Many court-written arrangements also encourage informal, short visits if and when the distant parent is in the community where the children are living. The custodial parent is expected to be flexible in order to accommodate the access parent.

But even these common arrangements may vary depending on the child’s age, cognitive maturity and personality. Where there are safety concerns or the access parent has not had a close relationship with the child in the past, there may be less or even no access.

How long is long distance?

There is no neat and tidy definition of what constitutes “long distance”. Generally, if a trip – whether by car, bus, train or plane — of more than a couple of hours each way is involved, access throughout the week is unlikely to be workable.

However, this is dependent on the ages of the children, to some extent. It may be impossible for an infant or toddler to travel even an hour each way two or three times a week; whereas an adolescent or young teenager may be quite happy to spend a few hours on a bus or train every week to see their other parent. Where children are very young, there has been little or limited contact with the access parent in the past or there are safety concerns, the court may impose a transitional stage, during which access will be shorter and/or supervised, even if informally.

Accommodating children’s schedules

As children get older, their views and preferences as well as their regular activities will play a larger role in creating an access regime, which is consistent with the best interests of the child test.

For example, if a child is very involved with an activity that takes place every weekend and spending weekend time with the access parent out of town would interfere with this, the court is likely to look for an alternative arrangement – perhaps the access parent comes to the town where the child lives or longer access happens when there is a break in the child’s activity.

Where weekend access is viable, the court may make it more frequent or longer to compensate for mid-week access that is not practical because of distance.

Possible arrangements

There is a broad array of arrangements courts may make with respect to transportation of children when distance is involved.

Where the driving distance is relatively short (less than 2 hours each way) and if both parents drive and have a vehicle, the court may set up an arrangement in which they each drive to a midway point and exchange the children there or in which each parent drives one way for each visit

If only one parent drives or has a vehicle, that parent may be expected to do all the transporting of the children, but the other parent may be required to contribute to the cost of the gas.

If the children are going back and forth by plane, bus or train, arrangements will have to be made for those costs to be covered. These costs may inform the amount of child support to be paid. Courts typically look at who is responsible for the need for transportation. For example, if an access parent moves to take a better job, he may bear most of the burden of paying for access travel in addition to paying the table amount of child support. If the custodial parent has moved with the children, she may need to pay more than half the travel costs or accept a lower level of child support.

The costs of travel can become very high if the distances are long or the children are young and require a guardian to travel with them, so sorting out who is responsible for paying what is both important and a potential source of conflict.

Making use of technology

One of the advantages of technological communication is the role that virtual access can play in families where one parent lives far away from the children.

  • It is now possible for children to have frequent and regular contact with a parent even if he lives thousands of miles away and they only seem him in person every couple of months.
  • Access orders that include Skype, IM, webcam and other electronic means of communication are more and more common. And, while a parent may not be able to cuddle a small child online, there is lots he can do.
  • Access parents can assist kids with homework, read a story with a child, talk over an important event; with livestreaming, that parent can even attend a child’s school concert.
  • Schedules for virtual access need to be flexible, so a child does not have to miss other activities for a Skype visit that the father ignores.
  • Virtual access costs money, too, and just like transportation, this will have to be sorted out in the order or agreement.
  • Safety and privacy need to be taken into account when making arrangements for virtual access.
  • Where there has been a history of abuse, virtual access needs to be managed as carefully as in-person access. In these situations, the order or arrangement needs to give the primary parent the ability to monitor the virtual access and end it if it becomes abusive or manipulative.

It can work

Long distance access can work well for both children and parents. It requires a slightly different approach, which it is important for both parents to understand before they start to set an arrangement in place.

  • Spontaneity is not as possible when the parents live far apart from one another – the father is not likely to be able to drop in on a soccer game or make a last-minute arrangement to take the kids to visit his parents or go out for dinner.
  • Advance planning — sometimes far in advance – is necessary, especially if children need to take time away from school or other activities, if travel has to be booked or if international travel is involved.
  • Both parents need to be able to be flexible, especially if the distant parent has an unexpected opportunity to be in the community where the child lives.
  • The costs associated with long distance access – both obvious and less obvious – should be thought out before they are incurred.
  • Safety needs to be a top priority when there is a history of abuse or concerns about parental abduction.

While there are more and more orders that address the issue of long-distance access, it is important to remember that, as with all family law issues, decisions are fact-based and very case specific. What works for one family will not work for another. We have given you some examples of arrangements courts have made or approved, but these are not intended to limit the options of what might be possible.

The previous installment looks at the context, law and implications when one parent moves

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