November 29, 2013

Bode Miller’s custody dispute becomes women’s rights cause

By Jennifer Peltz
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — When Olympic skier Bode Miller handed his infant son to the baby’s mother in a courtroom this week, she was handed a victory – for now – in a case that became a rallying point for women’s-rights advocates.

click image to enlarge

U.S. skier Bode Miller’s estranged girlfriend, Sara McKenna, regained temporary custody of their 9-month-old son. The pair are fighting for custody.

2012 Associated Press File Photo

Former Marine and firefighter Sara McKenna was looking to enhance her career opportunities and her unborn son’s future, by her account, when she moved last winter from Miller’s home state of California to New York to go to Columbia University.

But a New York judge this May called her move “irresponsible” and “reprehensible,” deeming that McKenna’s move was less about bettering herself than about bettering her position in the legal dispute.

That set off alarms among women’s groups and civil libertarians, who said the ruling wiped away pregnant women’s rights to make decisions as basic as where to live.

That ruling was reversed this month, and the 9-month-old boy is with McKenna at least until a Dec. 9 hearing.

McKenna “is absolutely thrilled and relieved” by the developments, her lawyers say, and her advocates are delighted by the broader legal message.

The reversal “unequivocally affirms a pregnant woman’s right to travel, relocate, and benefit from equal protection while making life choices without interference from presumptive fathers or the government,” attorney Naved Amed said. His firm, Amed Marzano & Sediva PLLC, is representing McKenna for free.

COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP

Miller’s lawyers say he never wanted to prevent McKenna from moving and is just pursuing involvement in his child’s life.

“She had the right to make any life choice she makes, but her life choice impacted her child because he’s now 3,000 miles away from his father,” said one of his lawyers, Jill Zuccardy.

The case has become a commentators’ conversation piece. To Slate magazine editor Emily Bazelon, it’s a sign – of fathers’ rights taken “way too far, to the point of dangerousness.” To Barbara Walters on ABC’s “The View,” it shows “that fathers are interested.” Legal experts, meanwhile, say the case highlights the complexities of custody when parents move far from each other.

“You could say that as much as it is about women’s rights and their autonomy ... at the same time, there’s a countervailing interest of the father’s rights and the father’s access to the child,” said Kevin Noble Maillard, a Syracuse University law professor who has written a book about nontraditional families.

McKenna, 28, had finished military service and was a civilian firefighter at the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton, between Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif., when she and the alpine skiing gold medalist had a brief relationship in 2012, according to court papers and interviews she has given. She and Miller both declined, through their lawyers, to be interviewed this week.

McKenna has said Miller, 36, initially indicated he didn’t want a role in their child’s life. During McKenna’s pregnancy, he married professional volleyball player Morgan Beck after a quick courtship, and he has a 5-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. But the skier filed papers claiming paternity in the San Diego County Superior Court’s Family Court section in November 2012.

By then, McKenna had decided her risky job wasn’t conducive to pregnancy or parenting, and she was aiming to finish her college education at Columbia. The school and New York state offered appealing financial and other support for veterans, according to court papers filed on McKenna’s behalf. She started classes in January and gave birth in New York in February.

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