NATIONAL NEWS

Woman who fled US to keep child custody more than a decade ago says her lawyer encouraged flight

May 24, 2023, 2:16 PM | Updated: 2:20 pm

A Virginia woman who left the United States for more than a decade with her child to avoid sharing custody of her daughter with her former partner says her lawyer suggested she flee.

In a document filed May 19 in federal court in Vermont as part of a long-running civil case, Lisa Miller outlined what led her to leave the country in September 2009 with her then 7-year-old daughter when it was becoming clear she would lose custody of the girl to her former partner Janet Jenkins of Fair Haven, Vermont.

The filing is the latest chapter in a more than two-decade-long legal saga that began in 2000 when Miller and Jenkins were joined in a Vermont civil union, the first statewide legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Their daughter, Isabella, was born to Miller in 2002. The couple split up in 2003. The Vermont family court gave custody of Isabella to Miller, but gave Jenkins regular visitation. Over the years Miller wouldn’t comply with the court ordered visitations. There were a series of legal decisions as Miller sought full custody that went against her in favor of Jenkins.

Miller said in her statement that during a summer 2009 meeting with attorney Rena Lindevaldsen to discuss upcoming appeals in the legal case, Lindevaldsen said “something like I am going to take my lawyer hat off now and put on my friend hat.”

Lindevaldsen then asked Miller about leaving, “telling me that if Isabella was her child then she would leave,” Miller said in the statement. “She pressed the issue, and I told her that I was leaving if plans would solidify but that no date was set.”

At the end of the meeting Miller said Lindevaldsen offered to take care of her financial needs after she left using proceeds from a book about the case Lindevaldsen was planning to write. The book, “Only One Mommy,” was published in 2011.

Lindevaldsen, who describes herself as a defender of traditional marriage, is a law professor at the Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia. Lindevaldsen’s biography on the school website says she served as the senior litigation counsel to Liberty Counsel, which had provided legal representation to Miller until her disappearance.

The counsel describes itself as a Christian ministry that is known for promoting conservative causes.

In September 2009, Miller left the United States by crossing the Peace Bridge at Buffalo, New York. Miller and her daughter were picked up on the Canadian side and taken to the Toronto airport where they flew to Nicaragua.

Horatio G. Mihet, who is one of Lindevaldsen’s attorneys and vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel at Liberty Counsel, denied in an email on Tuesday that the conversation Miller recounted took place.

“Ms. Lindevaldsen and Liberty Counsel consistently advised Lisa Miller that she had an obligation to comply with the court orders,” Mihet said. “Lisa Miller’s decision to leave the country was without the knowledge of Ms. Lindevaldsen or Liberty Counsel. Any suggestion to the contrary is outright false.”

Miller’s attorneys didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

Sarah Star, the Vermont attorney who represents Jenkins in the civil case, declined comment Wednesday when asked about the filing.

The document signed by Miller and submitted to court last week was part of a settlement to a civil case filed against Miller and others by Jenkins in 2012. Miller agreed to outline her version of events that led her to flee the country. The civil suit also names Lindevaldsen, the Liberty Counsel and others.

The settlement agreement and the proffer were both signed by Miller on March 21. It was included as part of a motion by Lindevaldsen and the Liberty Counsel on May 19 to have the civil suit against them dismissed. The agreement was marked “confidential,” but a footnote in the motion to dismiss said Miller’s attorney provided it to them “with Jenkins’ consent, without any agreement to restrict its use, and without first seeking any protective order.”

In the proffer, Miller outlined what she would say during an upcoming deposition planned for later this summer. She offered details of her flight that had not previously been made public.

In 2009 she was handed a slip of paper during a service at a Virginia church that had a name and a phone number, Miller said. Two days afterward, and before meeting with Lindevaldsen, she called the number and ended up meeting with two men who later helped her flee. Those third person eventually served prison sentences for helping Miller.

Lisa Miller voluntarily returned to the United States from Nicaragua in January 2021 after her daughter had turned 18. She was arrested on arrival. In February 2022 Miller pleaded guilty to a single charge of international parental kidnapping. She was later sentenced to time served and has since been released.

In 2021, Miller indicated in a court filing that Isabella Miller now 21, was living in Virginia and working on a farm north of Charlottesville owned by a Mennonite family.

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Woman who fled US to keep child custody more than a decade ago says her lawyer encouraged flight