Lesbian Mom Pleads for Daughter's Return

Janet Jenkins' ex-spouse, Lisa Miller, defied court order to turn over daughter.

January 28, 2010, 10:03 AM

Jan. 28, 2009 — -- On the steps of the courthouse in Rutland, Vt., Janet Jenkins pleaded for help in finding her daughter, Isabella.

"Please help me find my daughter," Jenkins told reporters. "She's only 7 years old. She needs to be safe, and she needs to be in a stable, constant environment. ... Isabella has been missing for 22 days. Every day I wonder where she is and if she's OK. Every time the phone rings, I hope it is someone calling to tell me they found her."

Isabella wasn't abducted by a stranger. The girl with the blond hair and the big grin went missing along with her custodial parent at the end of last year. But this is not the typical mother-father divorce dispute: This is mother versus mother.

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"My goal has never been to separate Isabella from her other mother, Lisa," said Jenkins. "I just want what is best for our child, and that is to know both of her parents."

Isabella's parents are Jenkins, 45, and Lisa Miller, 41, who traveled from Virginia to Vermont to be joined when civil unions became legal there. They moved to Vermont in 2002 and opened an in-home day care center.

"We fell in love and wanted to have a family together, just like any other couple," said Jenkins.

Pictures from Jenkins and Miller's wedding show a happy couple. They shared a love of children, Jenkins says, so they went through the costly and difficult process of in vitro fertilization. Miller carried the baby.

"We chose a sperm donor, an anonymous donor, from a California cryobank that has all my traits -- eye color, hair color, skin tone, down to spicy foods, favorite foods, intelligence level," said Jenkins. "The one thing that we did give our child that neither one of us had was the donor was tall, and Lisa and I are both five-two, so we thought, 'We'll give her an edge.' But other than that, you know, we wanted our child to look like both of us, and she does."

Miller's pregnancy was happy news, Jenkins said.

"Oh my God, it's the best high in the world," she said.

'I Wanted to Have Children'

Isabella was born in 2002. Pictures show a beaming Jenkins in the delivery room, assisting in the birth of her first child. Jenkins never adopted the child, however.

"I was told I never had to adopt her as long as she was born within our legal, civil union, just like a married couple," said Jenkins. "Why would you adopt your children? ... It's just like any couple that cannot have a child, it would be like if I was a man and I didn't have the sperm count to impregnate my wife, I would go to an anonymous donor as well. I wanted to have children."

Jenkins said she considered herself "absolutely" Isabella's mother, "100 percent."

But when Isabella was 17 months old, Jenkins and Miller separated and Miller filed to dissolve the union. Miller headed home to Virginia with the toddler. Jenkins, who still runs the day care center, said they worked out an amicable agreement.

"Even when we decided to divorce, you know, we had a notarized paper that said ... I agreed to a large amount of child support ... Lisa was used to a certain lifestyle with me and I was willing to continue that for a period of time. ... But it was also stated, liberal visitation, that I could see my daughter any time I wanted, and at first I was seeing her every weekend, and I run a business here, working Monday through Friday in Vermont, jumping in my car at 5 o'clock and driving eight to 10 hours to be with her for the weekend, to jump in the car as soon as she went to sleep on Sunday to get back here to open my business Monday. And that went on for a very long time."

Then Miller became a born-again Christian. She joined the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. She renounced homosexuality. Miller told a reporter for Newsweek, "I realized, 'Wow, I say I'm saved, but how can I be if I haven't repented, if I've been living in sin all these years in a same-sex relationship?'"

With that renunciation, Jenkins said, Miller moved to cut off her contact with Isabella.

"Then I became a sinner, and she didn't want me to have my daughter to call me anything other than my name, Janet, and this was very confusing for my daughter," said Jenkins. "She knows me as 'Mamma' and she knows I'm her other mother ... but really from that point on I could not see my daughter."

The legal arm of Falwell's church, Liberty Counsel, took up Miller's case and her cause, helping her fight to cut off Jenkins' parental rights -- in court and in the court of public opinion. Vermont courts gave Jenkins parental rights, while two Virginia courts sided with Miller. The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which agreed with Vermont. Jenkins was granted parental and visitation rights. But when Miller still refused to let Jenkins see Isabella, a Vermont Family Court judge awarded Jenkins full custody. Miller was ordered to turn Isabella over on Jan. 1 of this year.

'My Constant Love Is There'

"Isabella was to be brought to us at my parents' house in Falls Church, Va., at 1 p.m.," said Jenkins. "So my parents were there. I was there. My sister was there. Friends were there."

Jenkins admitted she didn't expect Miller to show up.

"I honestly didn't," she said. "You know, but you have that hope that she'll have the epiphany or see the light or whatever. ... I just wanted to maintain a healthy relationship with my child. Let her know that my constant love is there, my financial support will always be there. I will always be there. Her family will always be there for her.

"She didn't have to live with me full-time. But you know, I would like to have some holidays, come to her graduation, kindergarten graduation. I'd like to have time in the summer to take her to the ocean and -- basically a quote-unquote normal visitation schedule to where I see her regularly and she knows I'm a constant in her life for the rest of her life."

Miller's church, however, would say there's no way that Isabella can have a normal life if she has two mommies.

"That is just barbaric to me," said Jenkins. "There are so many different diverse families. Grandparents raise their children. Single moms raise their children. Two men raise their children. Uncles raise their children. Two moms raise their children all the time. The stigma is just hatred and bigotry being taught. It's just very backward. To me and to two loving parents that go to all these measures to have this child, you don't just drop one and walk away."

She continued, "It's just like when we were having our child, I didn't ever imagine that we were not going to be a family, but when we did decide to divorce, I never divorced my daughter. And that was never into the equation, ever."

Neighbors of Miller's last known residence, in Forest, Va., told sheriff's deputies the mother and daughter left last September and haven't been seen since.

"Honestly, I think the church is involved in hiding her," said Jenkins.

Miller's legal team, Liberty Counsel, deny knowing Miller and Isabella's whereabouts and refused a request for an interview.

Jenkins said she's concerned about Miller's mental state.

"I think she's dangerous, and I think she's very vulnerable and I think she's capable of anything," said Jenkins. "I think she's very desperate. I think the people and the places that she is exposing herself to and my child to -- our child to -- it's just frightening for me to even think about."

Jenkins said she also fears for the child.

"I can't even imagine what life is like for her right now," Jenkins said. "Not knowing where she is, not knowing if she's got any -- I know how important structure is for children. I work with children and I know how important the structure is. Well, honestly I don't know what her life is like right now. ...I know the last few times I had her, it sounded like her world was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. ... Church and Lisa."

Jenkins was back in court last week, asking the judge to find Miller in contempt for refusing to hand Isabella over to Jenkins.

Miller wasn't there, but her attorneys were present by telephone. The judge give Miller until Feb. 23 to produce Isabella or face arrest.

"Today we're very pleased with the results of the hearing," Jenkins' attorney, Sarah Star, said outside the courthouse. "The judge sanctioned Ms. Miller and made specific findings that she had intentionally and knowingly, willfully disobeyed the court's order, which was a legally binding and valid order."

Jenkins said she didn't wish to see Miller under arrest.

"I don't want to see that, and I really don't want my daughter to see that," Jenkins said. "But there are consequences for actions and these are really severe actions. So I don't know what's going to happen to her, but I do know the danger my daughter's in, she wouldn't be in unless Lisa Miller brought her into this situation."

It's now been a year since Jenkins has seen Isabella. "Nightline" visited the Vermont home Miller and Jenkins shared, where Isabella's room sits ready for her return. It's stocked with photographs and with toys and gifts from Jenkins and her parents.

We asked Jenkins if she thought Isabella would be back in the room.

"Oh, I do. I do," Jenkins said. "I will never give up hope. I do think someone out there is going to tell, for Isabella's sake, so that she can have a normal life."

For more information about the search for the child, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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