In custody battle between two mommies, little girl is lost

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, January 8, 2010; B01

Really, we shouldn't be writing about Isabella.

She is in the middle of a custody dispute, just like thousands of children torn between adults who don't want to be with each other anymore.

But the 7-year-old has made national headlines because the sparring adults are two women.

Now a court case between the grown-ups involves two states, countless courts, police departments, a battalion of special interest groups, a phalanx of lawyers and thousands of people taking sides in online groups.

It's a passion play of soured love between two people that has become a battle for anti-gay, religious conservatives. The biggest victim in all of this will surely be the little girl with long hair and an online history not shared by her playground friends.

A little girl who has gone missing.

Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins were in their 30s when they met in Virginia, moved to Vermont, were joined in a civil union in 2000, bought a house and had a kid two years later.

As many gay folks will tell you, moves like this aren't spontaneous, crazy or happy-go-lucky. Legal issues, paperwork, money, explanations to parents, doctor appointments, fertility treatments and insemination attempts make having a child a considered and costly process.

But after going through all that and parenting the child for a year and a half, Miller and Jenkins split. Miller, who gave birth to Isabella, got primary custody and moved back to Virginia. Jenkins stayed in Vermont, and the supreme courts of both states treated it like a ho-hum breakup. There would be regular visits, child support payments and so forth.

After taking the cash and sending homemade cookies and cards to Isabella's other mommy for some time, Miller apparently conked herself on the head and decided that her whole lesbian life had been a big mistake. She began going to a conservative, evangelical church and had declared herself a born-again Christian.

She simply wanted to erase it all, make the past go away. She decided Jenkins was not the other mommy, homosexuality is wrong and the lovely old folks they'd been visiting and calling "mom-mom" and "pop-pop" (Jenkins's parents) couldn't contact the little girl they treated as their granddaughter.

This went on for years. Jenkins would drive down to Virginia, wait at her parents' house for the court-ordered visit, holding unopened Christmas and birthday gifts. Miller and Isabella would rarely show up.

Two months ago, a Vermont judge awarded sole custody to Jenkins because Miller was found in contempt for denying so many visits.

Jenkins, who runs a licensed day care out of her Vermont home, said she was cautiously optimistic that on Jan. 1, Isabella would finally come live with her.

But on the day of the scheduled hand-off at Jenkins's parents' house in Falls Church, Miller was nowhere. That afternoon, Jenkins called police.

Miller couldn't be found, and Isabella hadn't been seen, either. Jenkins and her attorney, Sarah Star, are working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and police in several jurisdictions to mount a search. A Virginia court weighed in Thursday, ordering Miller to hand the child over to Jenkins.

Miller's attorney, Mathew D. Staver, law school dean at Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization based in Florida, was "not available" to comment on the case, an assistant told me.

Miller told Newsweek two years ago that letting Isabella live with Jenkins would be like giving her child to the milkman.

Well, yeah -- if you lived with the milkman, made love to him, bought a house with him, entered a civil union with him at a quaint resort blanketed in snow and bedecked with greenery, sat through fertility treatments that he helped pay for, let him catch the baby as you pushed and shared midnight burping and diaper duties -- it would be just like giving your child to the milkman.

Miller's relationship with Jenkins was an adult one, clear-eyed and far more considered than a boozy night of too many tequila shots and some back-seat action that results in a child.

A three-year legal union and a relationship that includes the birth of a child isn't something you can take back.

In the end, no matter how much Miller might hate her ex, a vulnerable child is being trampled by her intransigence. How can a 7-year-old endure all this and come out unscathed?

Miller has a right to her beliefs, certainly, but she also has a moral and legal obligation to keep the people who love Isabella and are legally bound to her in her life.

Miller's legal team said in court that a move to Vermont, with a new school and new friends, would be disruptive for a 7-year-old.

And going into hiding isn't?

I think it'll be a lot trickier to explain to a child why one mommy is in jail than why another mommy likes girls.

Lisa Miller, come out of hiding and face this like a mom.

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