Today's New York Times has a story of the continuing saga of a born-again self-proclaimed ex-lesbian who took her child to Central America when a judge threatened to revoke her custody because she refused to allow court-ordered visits from the woman's former legal partner.
The dispute involves a landmark family law case of a former civil union, the baby they had together, their subsequent divorce, and the baby's mother renouncing her lesbianism and taking up w/ radical anti-gay christians.
Indeed, the case of Lisa Miller of Virginia has had national (and now, international) implications. Miller and her former partner, Janet Jenkins of Vermont became noteworthy as they were one of the first gay civil unions in Vermont that filed for divorce and involved both another state recognizing that and the custody issues surrounding it.
Follow me below the fleur-de-Kos for more details:
Three years ago, a judge in Vermont, so incensed that Miller repeatedly denied Jenkins her court-ordered visitation rights, that he threatened to revoke Miller's custody of their daughter Isabella Miller-Jenkins, now 10. Miller, in a fit of pique, decided to kidnap their daughter rather than allow her to come in contact w/ Jenkins.
Isabella was 7 when she and Ms. Miller jumped into a car in Virginia, leaving behind their belongings and a family of pet hamsters to die without food or water. Supporters drove them to Buffalo, where they took a taxi to Canada and boarded a flight to Mexico and then Central America.Miller has become a cause celebre among the hardcore homophobic religious right. Representing her is a group associated with Jerry Falwell's Liberty University Law School.As a result of the Liberty Counsel defending Miller, a number of civil liberty groups including the ACLU, GLAD, and Lambda Legal have represented Jenkins.
Ms. Miller, 44, is wanted by the F.B.I. and Interpol for international parental kidnapping. In their underground existence in this impoverished tropical country, she and Isabella have been helped by evangelical groups who endorse her decision to flee rather than to expose Isabella to the “homosexual lifestyle” of her other legal mother, Janet Jenkins.
These days, Miller and Isabella are hiding out in a Mennonite community amongst the barrios of Managua, Nicaragua. I should point out that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in all the Americas with only Haiti being poorer.
Miller has snared a Mennonite pastor into her web of deceit. That man is now facing aiding and abetting charges in Vermont. His trial begins on Aug. 7.
In order to explain how we got to this point, I have to provide some background:
Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Va., in 1997. In later interviews, with supporters and her lawyers, Ms. Miller described growing up with a mentally unstable mother and dealing with her own problems of pill addictions, food disorders and self-mutilation. After a failed marriage and a suicide attempt, she said, she began seeing women.So the couple went to Vermont, which at the time recently began sanctioning civil unions. They became each others legally-wed partners in 2000, choosing the name Miller-Jenkins.
Ms. Jenkins, when they met, had recently ended a long-term relationship with a woman.
“It was a normal courtship, and we fell in love,” Ms. Jenkins recalled. “We wanted to have a family and spend the rest of our lives together.”
Shortly thereafter, the couple decided they wanted a baby. Miller conceived via in vitro fertilization, a selection that The Times noted was so the baby would share Jenkins green eyes.
Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins was born in Virginia on April 16, 2002. Ms. Jenkins cut the umbilical cord as her own mother, Ruth, stood in the room.Miller claimed later that this is when she started questioning her sexuality and when she rekindled an interest in Christianity.
Preferring to raise a family in a state that endorsed same-sex relationships, the couple moved to southern Vermont. They bought a two-story house within walking distance of a grade school in Fair Haven, a small town known for Victorian houses and summer music on the village green.
Isabella learned to call Ms. Jenkins “Mama” and Ms. Miller “Mommy.” In these apparently happier days, Ms. Miller made an Easter card for Ms. Jenkins with Isabella’s handprints and the words, “Mamma I love you.”
During her difficult pregnancy with Isabella, “I promised God that if he would save my baby, I would leave the homosexual lifestyle,” she said in notes she left for one of her lawyers, Rena M. Lindevaldsen, associate dean of the Liberty University Law School. Ms. Lindevaldsen describes the notes in “Only One Mommy,” New Revolution Publishers, her 2011 book on Ms. Miller and what she calls the threat of “the homosexual lifestyle.”Jenkins said Miller did not express any doubts or regrets at that time, noting the couple then were practicing Unitarians Additionally, she said Miller got along w/ Jenkins parents, raised Catholic, that were devoted to their grandchild.
What is clear is that, despite claiming doubts about Jenkins, lesbianism, and supposedly being more religious, Miller and Jenkins planned another baby. Unfortunately, Miller miscarried. Jenkins said Miller became depressed as a result, which is quite understandable. Miller said her thoughts were dominated by guilt.
The couple separated in September, 2003 when Isabella was not yet 18 months. Miller returned to Virginia which did not recognize the couple's union.
The next detail IMO says a great detail about Miller and the something for nothing crowd. Reporter Erik Eckholm said Jenkins signed a promise to pay child support, and they agreed, she said, that she and her parents would remain in Isabella’s life.
“I wanted to preserve the close bond with Isabella,” Ms. Jenkins said, and she started visiting on weekends, making the 10-hour drive from Vermont. Their civil union was formally dissolved in 2004, and Family Court in Vermont granted custody to Ms. Miller with visiting rights for Ms. Jenkins.Miller won the early legal battles thanks to the support from the Liberty Counsel, but as the case wound its way to the Virginia Supreme Court, those victories turned out to pyrrhic.
But according to court records, Ms. Miller soon began to block visits, disappearing with Isabella before Ms. Jenkins arrived. As she became more vocal about her religious beliefs she moved to Lynchburg, Va., where she got a teaching job at Liberty Christian Academy, a Baptist school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell with close ties to Liberty University, which he also founded.
Initially, a Virginia court sided with Ms. Miller, and for two years she did not allow Ms. Jenkins to see Isabella. She told Ms. Jenkins’s parents that they should not consider themselves Isabella’s grandparents and that the child could no longer call them “Mom-Mom” and “Pop-Pop.”Miller denied Jenkins visitation repeatedly. Miller's legal capos from Liberty Counsel made an incredibly offensive and petty filing that "Jenkins had upset Isabella by taking a bath with the child and was undermining the girl’s conservative beliefs by reading her “Heather Has Two Mommies.” When Isabella returned from a rare visit to Vermont showing anxiety and wetting her bed, Ms. Miller blamed Ms. Jenkins."
“I couldn’t believe that Lisa was saying this,” Ruth Jenkins said in an interview. “I was in shock.”
But eventually, setting what legal experts said was an important precedent, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that Vermont still had jurisdiction, regardless of Virginia’s stance on same-sex unions. The Vermont court laid out a new schedule of visits.
Naturally, the judge in Vermont that ordered the visitation — a right that I might add the VSC had itself sanctioned — was rather annoyed. However, IMO his subsequent leniency actually enabled Miller to avoid jail time and time to plot her kidnapping.
The exasperated judge in Vermont held Ms. Miller in contempt once again but gave her another chance, specifying visits in Virginia and in Vermont. But none took place. In August, the judge warned that he would transfer custody and ordered a weekend visit for late September.Federal officials assert, in court filings that shortly thereafter, that Miller began to plot kidnapping Isabella and fleeing to Nicaragua, according to both phone records and e-mails.
Ms. Miller’s written appeal to the judge that fall gives some idea of her thinking.
“What is at stake is the health and well-being of an intelligent, delightful, beautiful, 7-year-old Christian girl,” she wrote. Isabella “knows from her own reading of the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman,” she wrote, “that she cannot have two mommies, that when I lived the homosexual lifestyle I sinned against God, and that unless Janet accepts Christ as her personal savior, she will not go to heaven.”
One person named in the court papers is Philip Zodhiates, the owner of a conservative Christian direct-mail-list service who lives in Waynesboro, Va., and owns a beach house in Nicaragua. The other is Kenneth L. Miller, a pastor of the Beachy Amish Mennonite sect in Stuart’s Draft, Va., and manager of a family garden business five minutes from Mr. Zodhiates’s home. (He is not related to Lisa Miller.)A lawyer representing Jenkins said that how Miller contacted Kenneth Miller is an important legal question because of the suspicious and allegedly coincidental manner that Miller met Kenneth Miller. The law school dean denies discussing the case and while he admits to knowing the direct mailing magnate, that Ms. Miller's case was never discussed.
Mr. Zodhiates has not been indicted, but Mr. Miller’s trial is set to begin on Aug. 7. Prosecutors, citing extensive e-mail correspondence, say that he helped make arrangements for the escape to Nicaragua. If convicted, he could be sentenced to three years in prison. E-mails in the court documents suggest that Mr. Zodhiates also helped with the flight and later sent “care packages” with items like peanut butter to Lisa and Isabella.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Zodhiates declined to comment for this article.
This is what prosecutors say happened next:
On Sept. 21, 2009, Ms. Miller and Isabella drove south to meet Kenneth Miller, who, according to court documents and missionaries in Nicaragua, gave them Mennonite dresses and scarves for their journey. That evening they were driven to Buffalo, a trip documented by the F.B.I. in a trail of calls from two cellphones registered to Mr. Zodhiates’s company, Response Unlimited.Miller and Isabella were embraced by the Mennonites living in Nicaragua from the moment they deplaned.
Just after midnight, prosecutors allege, Ms. Miller and Isabella took a taxi over the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls and were met by a Mennonite pastor who put them on a plane to Mexico City, where they continued on to El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The tickets had been bought at Kenneth Miller’s request, according to the indictment, with the purchase arranged by a fellow Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua who had his mother-in-law in the United States buy them. She was reimbursed with a money order from Virginia.
Ms. Miller and Isabella were met at the Managua airport by Timothy D. Miller, 35, known as Timo, an ebullient pastor who was born to missionaries in Honduras and runs the Beachy Amish Mennonite outpost in a rough area of this capital city. He drove them straight to the interior town of Jinotega, in the coffee-growing hills of northern Nicaragua, he said in an interview, where they lived for two months on a farm. (Timo Miller is not related to either Kenneth or Lisa Miller.)Miller was feeling isolated and subsequently became depressed. Just days after the Mennonites arranged what for them was a big blow out party for Isabella's eighth birthday, Miller started clashing with Timo and soon moved into her own house in Jinotega.
Isabella enjoyed the animals, but it was a rainy, foggy time of year in Jinotega and Ms. Miller felt isolated, Timo Miller said. The pair moved to Managua, to a $150-a-month one-bedroom home near the Mennonite mission.
Missionaries in Jinotega, too, indicated that Ms. Miller struggled with depression.Timo Miller returned to the U.S. in April, 2011. Unbeknownst to him, the FBI had received an anonymous tip.
“Lisa is very independent-minded,” said David Friesen, 45, a Canadian Mennonite in Jinotega. “She needed spiritual help,” he said, and there were issues of anger and forgiveness from her past life.
But eventually, he said, she embraced the fundamentalist faith of the Mennonites. She also showed initiative, inviting neighborhood children into her home to read them Bible stories through an interpreter.
Last June, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit, an unnamed person called one of Ms. Jenkins’s lawyers, Sarah Star, and told Ms. Star that the mother and daughter were hiding in Mr. Zodhiates’s Nicaraguan house. Much of the evidence in support of the criminal charges and other accusations, the affidavit said, was obtained through court-approved, covert searches of e-mail accounts, uncovering messages from Mr. Miller that appear to arrange the mother and daughter’s 2009 flight to Nicaragua and from Mr. Zodhiates arranging to send them supplies.Luck was not with Timo Miller who was arrested as he tried to re-enter the U.S.
Everything changed on April 18, 2011, a year after the birthday party, when Timo Miller, returning for a vacation in the United States with his family, was arrested at Dulles Airport and charged with aiding a kidnapping. Ms. Miller and Isabella quickly disappeared from their house in Jinotega, and there have been no reported sightings since, but federal agents believe the pair remain in Nicaragua.Until then, none of the Mennonites even had a clue that they could be considered accomplices. Mennonites shun technology and the modern world. They seemed to be caught in a vice attempting to please the wealthy benefactor Zodhiates.
In December 2011, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against Timo Miller in return for his testimony and filed charges against Kenneth Miller for what they allege was his more central role in the flight from the United States.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Mr. Friesen said of the decision to shelter Ms. Miller and Isabella. But he added, “We are willing to be persecuted for God’s will.”The FBI, in an affidavit, asserts that Timo Miller is a liar and they have coded messages to prove it.
Timothy Schrock, 46, bishop of the Mennonites in Nicaragua, originally approved Kenneth Miller’s request to help Isabella and her mother. Speaking in Waslala, where he is pastor of a remote church, he said that the “brethren,” as they call themselves, now feel under siege, their phones and e-mails presumably monitored, and some are afraid to return to American soil.
According to the April 1 affidavit by FBI Special Agent Dana Kaegel:Miller crudely tried to hide his activity by using code names, said the FBI:
• Using search warrants that gave them access to email and Facebook accounts, authorities found their way to Timothy Miller, who is described as pastor of an Amish-Mennonite church in Managua, Nicaragua, and associate of Christian Aid Ministries, which is based in Berlin, Ohio.
• On Sept. 22, 2009, Lisa Miller and the girl flew from Toronto to Mexico City and then on to El Salvador. A day later, they flew to Managua.
• In customer service notes obtained from TACA Airlines and dated the day before, someone wrote that Timothy Miller called from Nicaragua and said Lisa Miller and the girl had to leave Canada the following day and couldn’t be routed through the United States. According to the airline, “Timothy” approved the itinerary.
Investigators believe that references to “Sarah” and “Lydia” in emails sent from Timothy Miller’s account are code names for Lisa Miller and her daughter. In an email dated March 25, 2010, a birthday party for the girl is discussed, with the writer saying: “I feel dearly for these 2 dear people. And I can see it would mean a lot to them in this rough first year of there stay in Nica. I would love for Lydia’s birthday to be very special and remembered long. She is going through a lot, and her future looms greatly in front of her right now.”Miller supporters maintain that she has done nothing wrong. They blame the (presumably librul (sic) courts for the problem. Moreover, their response to Eckholm underscores both how they feel the courts must bend to their religious beliefs:
• Emails make reference to Lisa Miller. One written by Timothy Miller said: “Sorry, folks, the Lisa subject should currently not be a topic of discussion or emailing. It might soon, or it just might be more of a secret. Please advise folks about this. Pray. Definitely pray.”
Ms. Lindevaldsen, the lawyer, said she knew that her former client could face jail time if caught, and that Isabella’s life could take another wrenching turn. She blames a misguided legal system.The reality is, well that some people don't live in the reality-based community. They would rather dwell in a bizarro U.S. that is in fact a dominionist kingdom.
“It’s sad that in America a woman was faced with this choice,” she said. “The court overstepped its bounds, calling someone a parent who is not a parent and turning a child over to a person who lives contrary to biblical truths.”
To borrow a phrase I used last year, writing about Timo Miller's arrest and extradition to Vermont, "I wonder what the Bible says about kidnapping?"
Sadly, some people like Lisa Miller and her enablers, think that committing one of the worst felonies, kidnapping, is acceptable so long as Isabella Miller-Jenkins is exposed to her lesbian parent. Because you know, teh gay is much worse than kidnapping.
This case is particularly relevant to me. I have a gay cousin that conceived in vitro and her daughter is now 13. While my cousin has a partner for close to 20 years, she has not gotten legally married. It is true I don't know if she and her partner have a custody arrangement or any kind of arrangement in either of their wills. Personally, it's not my business to ask about that. I do know that my niece is one of the happiest and most mature children I have ever met.
The case is also relevant as I have a former alcoholic friend who is now such a born again that we are no longer friends. I believe he is a dry drunk, replacing the bottle with the bible. I believe this is also the case for Lisa Miller who has struggled with substance abuse.
I also believe that religious zealots exploited her grief after her miscarriage. They made her believe the guilt she felt over losing the second baby was because of teh gay.
There are myriad problems with that kind of high pressure tactics, especially on someone so vulnerable, but what is particularly stupid about this noxious line of thinking is that if that were true, Isabella would have also been a miscarriage. How do the christianists explain that? Oh wait, they can't.