Custody case back in court
By Brent Curtis
Herald Staff | October 28,2008
A contempt of court hearing in a case between two women, a former lesbian couple, could have ended Monday with judge-ordered jail time for the biological mother of a child conceived during the pair's civil union in Vermont.
Instead, it ended with a rare conversation between Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, who dissolved their civil union half a decade ago.
"I wanted to see if she would continue to communicate," Miller said after a brief, private meeting with Jenkins. "It's really the first time I've had a face- to-face conversation with her in five years."
Jenkins later disputed the length of time since her last serious conversation with Miller, but she said communications not involving lawyers for the two have been rare.
The two women have been fighting since their relationship ended over the custody of Isabella, a daughter that Miller gave birth to in 2002, before the civil union ended.
Supreme Court decisions in Vermont and in Virginia, where Miller and Isabella now live, have both affirmed Jenkins, visitation rights.
But after complying for months with a Rutland Family Court visitation schedule in 2007 and the winter and spring of 2008, Miller began denying Jenkins access to her daughter in May.
Miller's failure to comply with or appeal a Family Court order to schedule makeup time for missed visits prompted Judge William Cohen to hold Miller in contempt of court.
But after hearing testimony from Jenkins and Miller, the judge decided against punitive measures, instead imposing a new visitation schedule and ordering Jenkins and Miller to communicate directly during preparations for visits and the visits themselves.
"Clearly, it's in the child's best interest for there to be contact between the two," Cohen said while ordering Miller and Jenkins not to avoid or deny any e-mails, text messages or phone calls from the other party.
Neither woman contested that order in court, but the reasons for their long period of silence were brought up in and out of the courtroom.
During cross-examination, Jenkins testified that she no longer talked to Miller because of "accusations" that her former partner repeatedly has made.
Later in the four-hour hearing Miller's attorney, Stephen M. Crampton, asked Miller about concerns she had about Isabella's behavior after meetings with Jenkins, including threats of suicide.
"The safety of my child is my first concern," Miller said.
Asked by Lisa Chalidze, one of Jenkins' attorneys, whether she would comply with future court orders, Miller said she "didn't know."
"I don't want to disobey the court's orders, I want to protect my daughter, she's only 6," Miller said answering a follow-up question from her lawyer.
Miller, who has a pending motion seeking to terminate future visits with Jenkins in Rutland Family Court, said after the hearing that in addition to threats of suicide, her daughter had nightmares, sometimes acted like a little "animal," wet the bed and engaged in behaviors inappropriate for a 6-year-old girl.
But a police investigation in Virginia found charges of child abuse unsubstantiated, attorneys from both sides of the case said, and Jenkins said Monday evening that Miller's allegations were what drove her to cease communications with her former partner.
"From very early on when I would spend time with my daughter we would have a great time but when she got home I would find out that she had a temper tantrum or acted out which is separation anxiety, not abuse," she said. "After a while, I felt like I needed witnesses around all the time which is why I would always have my parents or a friend of the family with me when I picked her up."
"I'm a mother who will not abandon my daughter," she added. "That's the only reason I keep showing up (in court.)"
Despite the allegations and her concerns, Miller said after the hearing that she hoped to have more conversations with Jenkins — perhaps even during Thanksgiving dinner, when Jenkins is scheduled to have three days together with Isabella.
"I told her I'd like to spend more time together with her and Isabella," she said.
Jenkins said Miller didn't ask her about getting together on Thanksgiving, but she said she wouldn't rule out visits involving Miller — so long as they didn't take place on dates when Isabella was scheduled to be with her.
"We need to have quality time when (Isabella) doesn't need to feel guarded or loyal to her mother," she said. "I don't intrude on her time with Isabella and that's all I want in return."
Contact Brent Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org.