It’s a standing joke among journalists that the “paper of record” in the United States, the New York Times, routinely lags behind other news outlets in breaking stories. When it comes to getting a scoop, the Times seems almost certain to come in second, third or worse. I don’t know the truth of the received wisdom, but this article takes it to extremes (New York Times, 7/29/12).
It’s about the Lisa Miller/Janet Jenkins case that’s been periodically bubbling up to the surface of the news for many years now. Indeed, Glenn Sacks and I have reported on the matter several times, so it was with some amusement that I read the Times piece, particularly its air of astonished discovery.
Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins met back in the late 90s, fell in love and moved to Vermont so they could form a civil union that the state’s law recognized at the time. They lived together and eventually decided they wanted to have a child, so Miller had herself artificially inseminated and, in due course, gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Isabella. Jenkins was there in the delivery room and cut the umbilical cord herself. Both Miller and Jenkins took part in raising the girl and seem to have loved her deeply.
But Miller decided that lesbianism is against the teachings of the Bible and swore off sex with women. That included the belief that Isabella would be unalterably damaged if she were raised in a household with “two mommies.” So as part of her campaign to cut Jenkins out of Isabella’s life, Miller fled to Virginia, a state that didn’t recognize civil unions between same-sex couples, hoping that a court there would invalidate any parental rights Jenkins would claim. But, much to her dismay, the Virginia court recognized that the Vermont court retained jurisdiction of the couple’s custody case. Soon enough, the judge in Vermont strongly suggested that, if Miller didn’t stop interfering with Jenkins’ visitation rights, he would switch custody to her.
So warned, Miller fled again with Isabella. With the assistance of the local Mennonite community, she went first to Canada, then to Mexico and finally to Nicaragua, where she apparently still lives, although she’s recently disappeared with Isabella. She lived for a time with the Mennonite community in Nicaragua, but they seem to have developed cold feet since one of their members was arrested for his part in aiding and abetting the international abduction of a child. When Timothy Miller (no relation to Lisa) flew to the United States, he was arrested and has since been cooperating with prosecutors who’ve brought charges against Virginian Kenneth Miller (also no relation to Lisa) for his part in facilitating Lisa’s abduction of Isabella. Miller’s trial is set to begin on August 7. The FBI, federal marshals and Interpol are all searching for Lisa Miller and Isabella who is now 10.
That’s the story in a nutshell. Since we last heard about the continuing saga, little has changed, which raises the issue of why the Times would choose now to bring the matter up. Whatever the answer to that question is, the writer seems determined that the Miller/Jenkins case is some new and strange animal, heretofore undiscovered, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Miller/Jenkins is like many international child abduction cases. The only possible distinction is the absence of a father in the drama. Substitute a biological male for Jenkins and the case would be little different from countless others.
True, the involvement of the Mennonite community as a co-conspirator in Miller’s wrongdoing adds an unusual twist, but even that is essentially the same as the Helen Gavaghan/Henry da Massa case. There, Gavaghan snatched their daughter following the determination by a British family court that da Massa might get custody of his daughter. She fled to Mexico and eventually to Canada where she eluded capture for over two years. How? She was assisted by the Catholic Worker organization that gave her refuge and possibly helped her change her name which she did more than once. Eventually she was captured, the child was returned to her father and Gavaghan was extradited to England.
Like Gavaghan and her daughter, Miller and Isabella have changed their names and gone into hiding. Isabella is blond, so of course she sticks out in a predominantly native American culture like Nicaragua’s. My guess is that Miller has dyed the girl’s hair.
So even the oddest details of the child’s abduction by her mother aren’t unique and of course the abduction itself is anything but. Countless parents, most of them fathers, have endured what Janet Jenkins deals with, and sadly, countless children have suffered the loss of home, family and all that’s familiar to them for the sake of a selfish parent. So what’s so different about the Miller/Jenkins case that grabs a place among “all the news that’s fit to print?”
The decade-long drama touches on some of the country’s most contentious social and legal questions, including the extension of civil union and marital rights to same-sex couples and what happens, in the courts and to children, when such unions dissolve.
Well, actually it doesn’t. After all, whether gay men and lesbian women are permitted to legally marry, they can still have children and, even when there’s no biological relationship between parent and child, courts have usually ruled that, as long as the adult has taken an active role in parenting, he/she has parental rights when the two split up. In short, for custody’s sake, two lesbians are treated much the same as an unmarried father and mother. It’s hard to believe that a writer for the Times wouldn’t know that the issues surrounding custody between same-sex couples are hardly new, but that’s the way the article treats the Miller/Jenkins case.
The far more interesting and important issues are those surrounding parental child abduction. For example, the fact that the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is often ineffective at returning children to their home countries is one important issue. Time and again, we see signatory countries dragging their feet on returning children, a process that can last for years. In the case of Isabella Miller-Jenkins, once she’s located, I won’t be surprised to see the courts in Nicaragua waste months and years before ordering return. After all, Jenkins is a lesbian while Miller loudly abjures her former sexuality. What’s a predominantly Catholic country to do?
But the Times missed the problem of the ineffectiveness of the Hague Convention in favor of touting issues that are largely non-existent.
Perhaps more important, the writer utterly failed to mention the serious emotional/psychological problems children often suffer when they’re forced by a parent to live in unfamiliar surroundings, change their names, their attire and generally live lives of constant apprehension. Significant amounts of psychological research have been done on that issue, but the Times doesn’t seem to know about it. Indeed, apart from the isolation of hiding driving mother and child “crazy” and the fact that Isabella has been “going through a lot,” there’s not a word about how three years on the run might be affecting the girl.
All in all, it’s a curious article. It has a good summary of the facts of the case, but entirely lacks meaningful context. There are real issues surrounding parental child abduction, but what happens when gay men or lesbian women split up aren’t among them. Too bad the Times missed the ones that are.