A self-described “ex-lesbian” who kidnapped her daughter and absconded to Nicaragua almost 12 years ago, in order to avoid having custody granted to her former partner, has turned herself into U.S. authorities.
Lisa Miller, a self-described “ex-lesbian” who became “born again” following her separation from her former civil union partner, Janet Jenkins, became enmeshed in a high-profile child custody dispute that grabbed headlines in the United States from 2003-2009.
On Jan. 18, Miller and her daughter, Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins, now 18 years old, turned themselves into the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua.
Miller, 52, was later returned to the United States and is currently being held at a federal detention center in Miami, where she faces kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to her successful efforts to deny Jenkins contact with the child they had planned for and conceived together through in vitro fertilization.
Scott McCoy, the interim deputy legal director at the SPLC, which has represented Jenkins in the custody case, said in a statement that the organization “expect[s] that [Miller] will be prosecuted for kidnapping to the fullest extent of the law.”
In addition to the criminal charges, Miller faces a civil lawsuit that Jenkins filed against her and those who allegedly helped her flee the country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Isabella remains in Nicaragua.
Sarah Star, Jenkins’ family attorney in Vermont and SPLC co-counsel, told the news site VTDigger her client was “relieved to learn of her daughter’s whereabouts,” but remains concerned that she is still in Nicaragua.
Jenkins, speaking through Star, said: “I just want Isabella to know that I love her very much and that I have never stopped loving her. Isabella has a family and support system here who will always welcome her home with open arms.
“When Isabella was born, Lisa and Janet named her Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins, after Janet’s mother, Ruth Jenkins. Grandparents Ruth and Claude Jenkins, as well as Isabella’s aunt and godmother, Linda Jenkins Garcia, are overjoyed by the thought that they will be able to see their beloved Isabella again. The Jenkins family wants Isabella to know that they have always kept prayer lists going for her, and she has never been out of their thoughts. The family longs for Isabella’s safe return and want her to know that they still celebrate her birthday and that her childhood bedroom is ready and waiting for her.”
According to The New York Times, Miller and Jenkins met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Va., in 1997. The couple began a relationship and, after Vermont became the first state to offer same-sex civil unions, traveled to the state and became one of the first couples to enter a civil union.
The pair soon pursued in vitro fertilization, with Miller carrying the child, later known Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins, to term on April 16, 2002.
Related: Parental Rights: Virginia makes good decision regarding lesbian custody dispute
The pair moved to southern Vermont, believing it was better to raise a child in a state that was friendlier to same-sex partners. But their relationship became rocky, especially as Miller converted to become a “born again” Christian fundamentalist, and they dissolved their civil union in 2003. Because Miller was the biological mother to Isabella, she was granted custody, and Jenkins was granted visitation rights. Miller later moved to Virginia and renounced her lesbianism, and denied attempts by Jenkins to visit Isabella.
Because Virginia did not recognize same-sex relationships, a Virginia court issued an order declaring Miller Isabella’s sole legal parent. Jenkins appealed, arguing that Virginia courts should have to comply with the initial custody ruling by Vermont family court. The Supreme Court of Virginia agreed, and ordered that Jenkins be allowed visitation rights.
Throughout the legal wrangling over the custody agreement, which made headlines as the two women sparred over what was “best” for Isabella — with Miller’s refusal to comply with visitation orders becoming a cause celebre for social conservatives and anti-LGBTQ organizations eager to deny recognition to any form of same-sex relationship — ultimately resulted in Vermont threatening to grant sole custody to Jenkins.
Fearful she would lose custody, Miller — with support from her members of her Lynchburg-area Baptist church, as well as Mennonite communities in Virginia and Nicaragua — fled the country, eluding authorities by dressing themselves in Mennonite garb and hitching a ride to Buffalo, from where they crossed into Canada, and, after taking a series of flights to various Central American nations in order to avoid detection, resettled in a Mennonite community in Nicaragua.
After Miller fled, the courts granted full custody to Jenkins, and in 2014, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Miller on charges of international parental kidnapping and conspiracy.
Related: Arrest warrant issued for Virginia “ex-lesbian”
Three men involved in helping Miller evade capture were sentenced for their roles in the case, with Mennonite pastor Kenneth Miller serving two years in prison for arranging for Miller’s departure, Timothy Miller (no relation), a Tennessee-based Mennonite missionary who works part-time in Nicaragua, serving eight months for purchasing plane tickets for Lisa Miller and Isabella, and Philip Zodhiates, the owner of a Virginia conservative Christian direct-mail-list service, serving three years in prison for driving the Millers from Virginia to Buffalo, reports WORLD, a conservative Christian news publication.
Throughout the ensuing years, authorities had attempted to locate Isabella, but had trouble infiltrating the tight-knit Mennonite community, and Lisa Miller would often go into hiding to avoid detection, according to MillerCase.org, a blog dedicated to tracking the convictions of the men accused of assisting her. Members of the Mennonite community claimed they were surveilled, interrogated, threatened and had their phone lines tapped in order to try and locate the Millers, but police were never able to locate them.
Supporters of Lisa Miller say they have mixed feelings about her decision to turn herself in after Isabella turned 18 and thus, is no longer subject to the custody agreement. Blogger Mark Roth celebrated Miller’s decision, writing: “I believe Lisa did the right thing to protect her daughter Isabella. I also believe she did the right thing in surrendering now that Isabella is of age. I commend her for that. Generally speaking, I think Christians should voluntarily surrender to authorities and face justice (or ‘justice,’ if you will) in the country where they are charged with truly criminal activity.”
The sentiments echoed by Roth have been repeated by other Christians who have written about the case, with many believing that Miller’s decision to flee was in Isabella’s best interest, in order to “protect” her from being exposed to homosexuality as a youth.
Others have said that there can be no compromising when it comes to issues of marriage and family, and that they do not recognize Jenkins’ parental rights. For instance, the anonymous author of MillerCase.org wrote in a 2012 post that Isabella had “become an innocent victim of an ungodly agenda…. According to the Bible we believe that God has given Lisa sole responsibility to care and protect her own daughter since she has no known father. According to the Bible it is a war between good and evil, a battle between God and Satan. As congregations we stand united in this spiritual warfare against evil.
“We cannot accept that a lesbian union is a binding one, even though man is trying to say it is. God’s Word says that marriage consists of a union between a man and a woman. Who is man to change God, our creator’s, eternal laws? Therefore Lisa’s ex-partner has no connection with Lisa’s daughter.”
According to Roth, Isabella made her own statement, which reads: “I, Isabella Ruth Miller, am grateful for the life that God has given me these past few years and rejoice in the blessings He has granted me. I am not willing to testify against Mama or anyone who has helped bless my life these past years. I am committed to continue to serve God in the days to come.”
LifeSiteNews, a right-wing website for social conservatives, started a petition earlier this year after Miller turned herself in, asking President Donald Trump to pardon Miller and others convicted in the case, but Trump did not grant those pardons.
Citing allegations made by Jenkins during the custody battle that Isabella experienced “trauma” after visits with Jenkins — accusations which state authorities investigated and determined not to be credible, but continue to be repeated by right-wingers to smear Jenkins’ character — the petition said a pardon would allow Trump to “show his solidarity with the Christians who support and love him and continue to stand with him” and grant those facing charges “a new lease on life.”
“At the time that these events transpired, Miller thought she was doing the right thing to protect her daughter and she has already ‘served time’ in exile,” the petition states. “… But, given the special set of circumstances in this particular case, we urge President Trump to issue the pardon because the time the Millers have spent abroad — away from family, friends, and colleagues — could be considered ‘time served.'”
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