A trial beginning this week in federal court in Vermont could lift some of the mystery from an international child-custody case that exposes some of the conflicts between legal recognition of same-sex relationships and biblical teaching.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in Burlington in the case against the Rev. Kenneth Miller of Stuarts Draft, Va. He would be the first person to go to trial as part of what prosecutors describe as a network of Mennonites and friends who helped shepherd Lisa Miller (no relation to Kenneth) and daughter Isabella, now 10 years old, out of the country in 2009.
Lisa Miller, who had become an evangelical Christian, fled rather than risk turning the child over to her former lesbian partner in a custody and visitation dispute. She is now a fugitive.
Authorities say Kenneth Miller, 46, drove Lisa and Isabella from Virginia to Buffalo, N.Y., after a Vermont family court judge indicated that he would transfer custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins, of Fair Haven, Vt. Lisa and Isabella reportedly traveled on to Canada and eventually to Nicaragua.
Lisa Miller and Jenkins entered into a civil union in Vermont shortly after the state became the first to legally recognize same-sex relationships in 2000. Miller conceived the child through artificial insemination, and both acted as parents after Isabella was born in 2002.
During this period Miller was rediscovering Christianity and eventually denounced homosexuality as an addiction. A child-custody case went to Vermont family court in 2004, after the couple dissolved the civil union. Miller, who had moved to Lynchburg, Va., had primary custody of Isabella, with Jenkins given visitation rights.
Miller soon became convinced that the visits with Jenkins were harming Isabella and refused to allow Jenkins access. According to LifeSiteNews.com, sworn affidavits from a clinical therapist and a social worker assert that continuing the visits to Jenkins would be "detrimental" and "damaging" to the girl. Miller told the website that Isabella said that Jenkins, in the first visit in several years, took a bath with the child and that Isabella began exhibiting various disturbing behaviors when she returned home. Miller then began denying visitation rights to Jenkins and, when it appeared that the judge was preparing to transfer custody in 2009, fled.
Jenkins' lawyer, Sarah Star, said Friday that she would monitor the trial on behalf of her client. "People need to be held accountable if they break the law, but Janet's overriding concern is Isabella's welfare," she said.
The trial, expected to last six days, may clear up exactly how Miller and her daughter went from attending the Thomas Roads Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to a community in rural Nicaragua.
The New York Times last week detailed their journey from Ontario to Mexico City to Managua, and then to a farm in the coffee-growing hills of the northern part of the country, where they became close to some Mennonite missionary families. Since then they have moved around the country to evade U.S. marshals who have pursued them.
Nicaragua is not a signer of the 1980 Hague convention on international child abductions, which is designed to return children illegally taken from member countries.
A Nicaraguan group of Mennonites told The Associated Press last year that it wanted to keep the girl away from Jenkins and her dangerous and immoral lifestyle.
"God's Holy Law never recognizes a gay marriage," The Rev. Pablo Yoder said in the email. "Thus, the Nicaraguan Brotherhood felt it right and good to help Lisa not only free herself from the so called civil marriage and lesbian lifestyle, but especially to protect her … daughter from being abducted and handed over to an active lesbian and a whole-hearted activist."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.