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Girl at center of lesbian custody battle is everybody's victim

April 25, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
It sounds like Isabella Miller is in Nicaragua with her mother, at least for now.

Isabella is the 9-year-old Virginia girl at the center of a custody battle between her biological mother, Lisa Miller, an evangelical Christian and self-declared former lesbian, and Janet Jenkins, the woman Miller married in a civil union in Vermont. According to an Associated Press article, mother and daughter are living in a beach house somewhere near Managua, Nicaragua and Lisa Miller is receiving financial help from wealthy evangelical Christians in the United States. A Tennessee minister, the Rev. Timothy Miller (apparently no relation to Lisa Miller), was accused in an FBI affidavit of helping Lisa Miller flee the country with her daughter on Sept. 22, 2009. He was arrested last week and appeared today in federal court in Burlington, Vt., where he was released on bond.

Jenkins never legally adopted Isabella, who was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor and carried by Miller; however, a Vermont court has recognized both Jenkins and Miller as her legal parents by virtue of their civil union. Jenkins and Miller split in 2003 and Miller moved back to Virginia with Isabella, joined a Baptist church and renounced homosexuality. Jenkins was awarded sole physical and legal custody of the girl in November 2009 after Miller repeatedly defied court orders to turn Isabella over for visitation with Jenkins.

I've followed this case since 2004 or so, when it first hit the news. I have mixed feelings. Despite Miller's actions, she is the girl's only known biological parent, has been her primary caregiver since birth and is by all accounts a good and loving mother. Isabella hasn't lived with Jenkins since she was 17 months old, doesn't call her "Mommy" and at best probably views her as a troubled distant relative. It may not be fair to Jenkins, but I can't see turning over custody to her without a biological tie or a long-standing emotional bond between Jenkins and Isabella. I also don't think Isabella will regret the lack of a bond between herself and Jenkins as she grows older as she undoubtedly would if the positions were reversed and it were Miller who was removed from her life.

Isabella has been a victim not only of Miller and Jenkins but also of America's ongoing cultural wars. It was Isabella's misfortune to be born at a time when the battle over gay marriage and gay custody rights was at fever pitch and the laws were different in different states and in the world's different countries. The political battles and Isabella's value to both sides as a symbol meant that gay rights supporters and fervent evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage have been all too happy to shell out money for Jenkins and Miller, both women of modest means, to carry on their never-ending custody war.

The differences in the law in different states – in this case Vermont and Virginia – made it possible for Miller to move from court to court and now from country to country, seeking rulings that agreed with her position and kept Isabella from having to visit with Jenkins. It all might have ended much sooner if Miller and Jenkins had been limited to spending their own funds and had been forced to hammer out some sort of agreement on their own. Maybe one or both of them would have seen the damage they were doing to Isabella and would have given up.

Instead, the case has come to this: an American child forced into exile from her country, living what sounds like an isolated, somewhat lonely life for the past year and a half. The FBI affidavit references an intercepted e-mail from the minister about a planned April 2010 eighth birthday party for a little girl called "Lydia" whom the agent suspects is actually Isabella, a little girl who had been having difficulty in adjusting to Nicaragua and really wanted to play with other children. Apparently her mother believes that it is better for Isabella to grow up in a strange country where she isn't familiar with the language, living on the run, under an assumed name, than it is for her to be sent to live with Jenkins.

So where does that leave Isabella? I'm guessing she will continue to be the victim of all of the adults in the story, none of whom are willing to give an inch.

 
 

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