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Are you my mother?

Family | One little girl, two mothers, three multi-state litigations, and four years add up to a custody battle that only the Supreme Court may be able to resolve

Issue: "Opium wars," May 12, 2007

It's not that the Jenkins-Miller case is that unusual: Parents split, one leaves the state with the child, things escalate and the left-behind parent sues for custody. Variations on the theme play out daily across the country, leaving family courts and judges to sort out "he-said, she-said" conflicts beneath which the future of innocent children is buried.

But what happens when the conflict takes a new twist? As in "she-said, she-said"? Or "Vermont says, Virginia says"? Can parentage be drawn at the state line? That's one question driving the litigation between Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins.

At the center of the storm is Isabella, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic 5-year-old who loves birthday parties and play dates and is given to warbling "Trust and Obey" as she manages a pastel abundance of toys. Unaware of the adult controversy swirling around her, she lives with her biological mother Miller in a modest bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac in Winchester, Va. While Miller's single-mom status might be deduced from the overgrown yard, inside the front door there is no doubt as to her devotion. Scores of photos of Isabella clutter every horizontal and vertical surface.

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This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. In August 2001, when Miller underwent artificial insemination, she and Jenkins planned to raise a baby together. Since 1999 the two Virginia natives had lived together as lesbians in Hamilton, 30 miles from Winchester, running a daycare center from their home.

Shortly after Vermont passed its civil-union law in 2000, Miller and Jenkins made the pilgrimage-taken in the last seven years by over 8,000 couples from all over the country-to gain official recognition of their relationship. They returned home to Virginia, where Miller would eventually conceive and give birth to Isabella.

For Miller, this would be a second "marriage." But while her previous union, a Virginia marriage that ended in divorce, would be recognized in all 50 states, the Vermont union would not-a legal quandary that can only be remedied by legalizing homosexual unions in all 50 states or outlawing them under a federal marriage amendment.

While social engineers were hatching their larger plans one state at a time, people like Miller and Jenkins hopped on the civil-union bandwagon for their own individual reasons. Like many heterosexual couples, Miller and Jenkins may have thought "tying the knot" would fix things.

"It was a troubled relationship from the beginning," says Miller, who spent most of the '90s trying to deal with monumental family issues-including abandonment by her father and childhood abuse by a mentally ill mother. Even as Miller worked serving the mental health community, she was working through her own wounds from the past with Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy.

It was in all three contexts that Miller began to identify herself as a lesbian, meeting numerous others on the job and at meetings, while being urged in therapy to accept her lesbianism.

"I never had a stable relationship. I never dated until I married my husband," recalls Miller, whose second relationship was a brief and volatile one with a woman from AA who had serial relapses in her battle with the bottle.

Miller's sobriety stuck, though, and when times were tough, she relied on AA, where she met Jenkins.

"By this time, I was trying to leave lesbianism," Miller says. But when Jenkins asked her out, she agreed. Their relationship progressed quickly, then settled into a "normal" life: buying a house in a small town, doing daycare, even becoming foster parents.

Like all couples, Jenkins and Miller had their share of disagreements, and Miller now claims Jenkins was often violent. The baby caused additional stress in their relationship, as Miller wanted to quit caring for other kids and be a traditional stay-at-home mom.

In August 2002, Jenkins and Miller sold their house in Virginia and moved to Vermont, where Miller says Jenkins promised she could stay home with Isabella. According to Miller, the relationship did not improve, as Jenkins-working as a nightshift security guard-grew increasingly bitter and controlling, demanding that Miller return to daycare.

A year after moving to Vermont, Miller brought Isabella back to Virginia to visit Miller's brother, a Christian who'd wanted little to do with her until then. While visiting, she attended a church service with him and made a commitment to Christ.

Upon her return to Vermont, Miller says, "We sat down to ask where our relationship was going. Nowhere." According to Miller, all was amicable as she signed a quit claim to the house and Jenkins agreed that Miller would have custody of Isabella, with visitation rights for Jenkins.

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