[NB. I originally had a switched the names of Miller and Jenkins in one paragraph. That may have caused confusion. I have now corrected this error.]
For quite some time I’ve been following a custody case involving two women who at one time had a Vermont civil union. Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller have been fighting over the custody of their seven year old daughter, Isabella, in courts in Vermont and Virginia.
I won’t rehearse the whole sorry story here–you can follow the links back if you like. Suffice it to say that Miller, who was trying to defeat Jenkins’ claim to status as a legal parent, sought to litigate in Virgina, a state well known to be very hostile to lesbian relationships. In the end, however, even the Virgina courts conceded that Vermont was entitled to decide the case, and so Jenkins was recognized as a legal parent.
Miller has refused to cooperate with the court-ordered visitation plan and has prevented Jenkins from exercising her right to spend time with her daughter. As a consequence, the Vermont court recently switched primary custody to Jenkins, who has consistently said she would facilitate Miller’s contact with Isabella.
All this sets the stage for yesterday’s story: Rather than comply with the court order, Miller has taken Isabella and vanished.
Apart from the fact that this ensures the case will drag on and on, it begins to make me think of David Goldman. His wife (and her family) refused to allow Sean (the son) to see his father. They sought refuge in the laws of another jurisdiction. It’s really an essential parallel.
And my response to the two cases is actually pretty similar. I think parents need to respect each other, if for no other reason than for the child’s sake. For surely in cases like these it is the children who suffer.
Now I know perfectly well that many who read this will vigorously disagree. You have only to read the comments on the Miller/Jenkins and David Goldman postings. Many of the same people who celebrate David Goldman’s triumphant reunion with Sean clearly support Miller in her efforts to exclude Jenkins from Isabella’s life.
I know I sound hopelessly like a broken record, but it all comes down to who you think is a parent. I’d like to invite those who side with Miller to at least momentarily consider this: IF (and I know it is a big if–just a hypothetical) you thought Jenkins was a parent to Isabella just as Goldman is a parent to Sean, then would you agree the cases are parallel? I think you’d have to.
The critical difference is that many will not recognize Jenkins as a parent, because she doesn’t share DNA with her daughter. (Interestingly, I’ve never seen an assertion that Sean Goldman shares DNA with David Goldman–if it turned out he had been conceived via donor sperm would that change the view of Goldman’s case? And if not, why not?)
So it all comes back to the same thing. To me both Goldman and Jenkins are parents to the children at issue. They are parents without regard for any DNA tests. They are parents because they have played the role of parent in the lives of their children, with the consent of their partners/spouses, for a significant period of time. They are parents because that is the reality in which their children lived. The law should (and indeed, this time it has) recognized both of them as parents.
That being the case, they have a right to continue their relationships with their children unless and until you can show that they are hurting the child. And if anyone in these cases is hurting the kids, it’s the vengeful parent who cut off contact between the child and the co-parent.
The hard part for me in both cases is the consequence of the passage of time. I wrote about this in David Goldman’s case and it is just as true in the Miller/Jenkins case. As time passes and one parent prevents contact between the child and the other parent, this creates a new reality for the child.
Much as I will insist that law must recognize the child’s reality, this is where I draw a line. It’s not acceptable to allow a vengeful parent to create a new reality by asserting control over the child. That’s what Miller is seeking to do here–to rewrite history so that Jenkins is not a part of Isabella’s life. It’s wrong, just as it was wrong that David Goldman’s in-laws tried to do the same to him.