MANAGUA, NICARAGUA: Lisa A. Miller and her daughter, Isabella, started their fugitive lives here in fall 2009, disguised in the white scarves and long blue dresses of the Mennonites who spirited them out of the United States and adopting the aliases Sarah and Lydia.
Now 10, Isabella Miller-Jenkins has spent her last three birthdays on the run, “bouncing around the barrios of Nicaragua,” as one federal agent put it, a lively blonde girl and her mother trying to blend in and elude the U.S. marshals who have traveled to the country in pursuit.
She can now chatter in Spanish, but her time in Nicaragua has often been lonely, those who have met her say, long on prayer but isolated. She has been told that she could be wrenched from her mother if they are caught.
She has also been told that the other woman she once called “Mama,” Miller’s former partner from a civil union in Vermont that she has since renounced, cannot go to heaven because she lives in sin with women.
Isabella’s tumultuous life has embodied some of America’s bitterest culture wars — a choice, as Miller said in a courtroom plea, shortly before their desperate flight, “between two diametrically opposed world views on parentage and family.”
Isabella was 7 when she and Miller jumped into a car in Virginia, leaving behind their belongings and a family of pet hamsters to die without food or water. Supporters drove them to Buffalo, N.Y., where they took a taxi to Canada and boarded a flight to Mexico and then Central America.
Miller, 44, is wanted by the FBI and Interpol for international parental kidnapping. In their underground existence in this impoverished tropical country, she and Isabella have been helped by evangelical groups who endorse her decision to flee rather than to expose Isabella to the “homosexual lifestyle” of her other legal mother, Janet Jenkins.
In a tale filled with improbables, an Amish Mennonite sect known for simple living and avoiding politics has been drawn into the high-stakes criminal case: One of its pastors is facing trial in Vermont on Aug. 7 on charges of abetting the kidnapping.
The decade-long drama touches on some of the country’s most contentious social and legal questions, including the extension of civil union and marital rights to same-sex couples and what happens, in the courts and to children, when such unions dissolve.
In this case, the passions of any divorce were multiplied by Miller’s born-again conversion to conservative Christianity and her denouncing of lesbianism as an addiction.
Miller repeatedly prevented Isabella’s court-ordered visits with Jenkins until an exasperated Vermont judge said he would transfer custody.
And then Miller fled.
Her supporters say she has been persecuted because of her religion. They made “Protect Isabella” a rallying cry at a time when more gay couples are raising children, whether through adoption or, in Lisa Miller’s case, in vitro fertilization.
“I only want to see my daughter,” Jenkins said in an interview this spring in the four-bedroom house in Vermont that she and Miller bought when they dreamed of having five children. Jenkins, 47, has since married another woman and runs a day-care business.
Even as Miller disappeared with Isabella, the Vermont judge granted Jenkins formal custody of the girl, as of Jan. 1, 2010. Jenkins keeps a bedroom piled with toys that Isabella is surely outgrowing.
“What’s hard for me as a parent is not knowing what she’s going through,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said she worries about Isabella’s welfare after years in hiding in a strange land, with all her former ties lost.
“Isabella was such a happy child,” she said. “That’s one of the things I hope has stayed the same.”