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Trial of man accused of helping mother in lesbian child custody case

August 6, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
There's a trial coming up in Vermont in a few days for Kenneth Miller. Miller is a Mennonite minister from Virginia who is accused of helping Lisa Miller, a former lesbian who is no relation to him, flee with her daughter to Nicaragua three years ago to avoid turning over custody to her former civil union partner, Janet Jenkins.

Kenneth Miller is charged with driving the pair from Virginia to New York state. Lisa Miller and her daughter then crossed the border into Canada and took a flight to Mexico. From Mexico they flew to Nicaragua, where they have lived on the run from authorities, helped by Mennonite missionary groups and evangelical Christians who sympathize with Lisa Miller.

I've been following this child custody case for several years, interested in it because of what it says about the ongoing culture war in the U.S. Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins married in a civil union in Vermont. Isabella was conceived with help from an anonymous sperm donor and was carried by Lisa Miller, her biological mother. Lisa Miller and Jenkins split when the girl was 17 months old and Lisa Miller returned to Virginia, where she returned to practicing evangelical Christianity and resisted turning Isabella over for visitation with Jenkins or calling Jenkins the girl's other mother. The case wound through the courts and eventually Jenkins was awarded physical custody of the girl in January 2010. However, Lisa Miller had already taken her daughter and fled the country a few months earlier, in the fall of 2009. Jenkins still lives in Vermont, runs a child care business and has remarried to another woman.

It's not entirely clear how Lisa Miller became tied to the Mennonites, since she had not previously been a member of that church, but several members of that church in the United States and in Nicaragua have been helping her. Another Mennonite pastor who helped Lisa Miller in Nicaragua made a deal with prosecutors in the case against Kenneth Miller, but Kenneth Miller has apparently either not been offered the same deal or is willing to risk going to jail for his beliefs.

The trial for Kenneth Miller, the driver, is an interesting test case, both for how far he is willing to go for reasons of conscience and for what the jury might do. If they find him guilty, it will be a win for prosecutors; if they refuse to find him guilty, it might be a case of jury nullification. If I were his attorney I would find any excuse for the jury not to convict, which many of them might not want to do. Perhaps he might argue that Lisa Miller had custody of Isabella at the time Kenneth Miller drove them to the border, so Kenneth Miller was doing nothing wrong. However, the government will likely argue that Kenneth Miller interfered with Jenkins' rights because there was an ongoing custody dispute.

Isabella turned 10 in April and, according to a New York Times story, now speaks fluent Spanish. She's bouncing around poor neighborhoods in Nicaragua with her mother, who is apparently battling depression, and has led a life long on religion and short on contact with kids her own age. Her mother was a teacher in a Christian school, so I would assume she's been homeschooled by Lisa Miller.

It doesn't sound like a very healthy life for a little girl, though I don't know that taking her away from her mother and giving her to Jenkins would be that much better. Isabella apparently saw Jenkins rather infrequently and didn't have all that strong an emotional bond with her even three years ago.

I don't know what the U.S. can legally do to Lisa Miller at this point if she does not return to the United States. If she's in Nicaragua illegally, that country will probably be pressured by the United States to deport them. On the other hand, I don't think Nicaragua necessarily recognizes same sex marriage or the rights of a non-biologically related same sex partner to be named parent of a child and Nicaragua is not party to the Hague convention on international child abductions. I have a feeling that Lisa Miller and her daughter Isabella could be in Nicaragua until Isabella turns 18 and there isn't much anyone can do about it.

The government is likely prosecuting Kenneth Miller in an attempt to smoke out Lisa Miller and Isabella. More trials will likely follow. It will be interesting to see how the Vermont jury rules.

What are your thoughts on the case?


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