Woman who fled the US more than a decade ago to retain custody of her child says her lawyer encouraged the escape

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

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

The motion is the latest chapter in a more than two-decade legal saga that began in 2000 when Miller and Jenkins entered into a civil partnership in Vermont, the first statewide legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Their daughter Isabella was born to Miller in 2002. The couple separated in 2003. The Vermont family court gave Miller custody of Isabella, but allowed Jenkins regular visits. Over the years, Miller failed to comply with court-ordered visits. When Miller filed for sole custody, there were a number of legal decisions that went against her in favor of Jenkins.

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

Lindevaldsen then asked Miller about the departure and “told me that if Isabella was her child then she would leave,” Miller said in the statement. “She pushed the issue and I told her I would go if plans materialized, 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 that Lindevaldsen planned to write. The book Only One Mommy was published in 2011.

Lindevaldsen, who describes herself as an advocate of traditional marriage, is a law professor at Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia. Lindevaldsen’s biography on the school’s website states that she served as lead counsel for Liberty Counsel, who legally represented Miller until her disappearance.

The council describes itself as a Christian ministry known for promoting conservative causes.

In September 2009, Miller left the United States by crossing the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York. Miller and her daughter were picked up on the Canadian side and taken to Toronto Airport for their flight to Nicaragua.

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

“MS. Lindevaldsen and Liberty Counsel have always advised Lisa Miller that she has an obligation to comply with court orders,” Mihet said. “Lisa Miller’s decision to leave the country was made without the knowledge of either Ms. Lindevaldsen or Liberty Counsel. Any claim to the contrary is utterly false.”

Miller’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Sarah Star, the Vermont attorney representing Jenkins in the civil case, declined to comment Wednesday when asked about the file.

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

The settlement agreement and the offer were both signed by Miller on March 21. They were part of a May 19 motion by Lindevaldsen and the Liberty Counsel to dismiss the civil suit against them. The agreement was marked “confidential,” but a footnote in the motion to dismiss stated that Miller’s attorney had made it available to them “with Jenkins’ consent, without an agreement restricting its use, and without first obtaining a protective order.”

In the offer, Miller outlined what she would say during an upcoming testimony scheduled later this summer. She disclosed details of her flight that had not been previously released.

In 2009, during a service at a Virginia church, she was handed a slip with a name and phone number on it, Miller said. Two days later and before meeting Lindevaldsen, she called the number and eventually met up with two men who later helped her escape. These two men and a third person ended up serving prison sentences for helping Miller.

Lisa Miller voluntarily returned to the United States from Nicaragua in January 2021 after her daughter turned 18. She was arrested upon arrival. In February 2022, Miller pled guilty to a single count of international parental kidnapping. She was later sentenced to prison and has since been released.

In 2021, Miller stated in a court filing that Isabella Miller, now 21, lives in Virginia and works on a farm north of Charlottesville owned by a Mennonite family.

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