The biological mother of a 10-year-old girl at the center of a years-long lesbian custody battle said she’s protecting her daughter from being placed in an environment unsafe for her special needs.
“I will fight to the end and do what it takes,” said Jeannette Rowan recently during an interview at a Westerville, Ohio, restaurant.
Rowan said she’s lost her house, her livelihood and life savings and spent the night in jail away from her daughter over the court case with her former girlfriend, Lisa Lewis of Sharon.
“Really, basically, her side of the story is just not true,” Rowan said of Lewis. “She says the same things over and over, loudly and repeatedly, but that doesn’t make them the truth.”
Lewis in 2007 first filed a lawsuit against Rowan for the right to see the now-10-year-old girl born while they were a couple. She was granted visitation and is now seeking primary physical custody so that officials where Rowan lives in Oxford, Ohio will enforce a warrant for Rowan’s arrest.
“She got visitation because that’s all her merits got her,” Rowan said of Lewis. “Everything else has been punitive action against me.”
Rowan said her daughter was not born into a two-parent home.
“She was never meant to be the child of lesbians … I didn’t choose to have a kid with her,” Rowan said of Lewis, her partner of 11 years.
Mercer County Judge Christopher J. St. John has found Rowan in contempt for not complying with court orders and she hasn’t come to Mercer County for court proceedings in more than a year.
Rowan said she’s almost always provided written reasons for why doesn’t appear and they’re usually related to her daughter’s health problems, which Lewis’s attorney J. Kennedy “Jarrett” Whalen has said Rowan is playing up for the court case.
Rowan said the child has suffered from mitochondrial disease since birth and it’s a complicated disorder that affects each individual differently. The disease is misunderstood and often misdiagnosed, but it keeps the cells of the body from properly providing energy for all the body’s functions. Rowan said that if the girl’s body is busy dealing with one problem, like a fever or panic attack, it has problems even allowing her to think clearly.
“It’s not like I mean to be unreliable. That’s the way it is. When the kid is ill, the kid is ill,” Rowan said, as her disease is systemic and her condition can change very quickly.
She’s upset by the notion that she does not respect the court system and notes that she used to work in juvenile probation. Rowan also has a bachelor’s degree in human development and family services and worked for 20 years with developmentally disabled adults before the arrest warrant kept her from being employed in that field.
“Do you think I want to be considered a criminal? I don’t,” Rowan said. “I didn’t work so hard to have this taken from me. I didn’t obey the court order, but I’m not going to sacrifice my child’s well being. I just can’t do it to her. “
The fact that Lewis doesn’t believe the girl is seriously ill is a huge issue, Rowan said.
“My biggest problem is (my daughter) is not safe with her because of this. If you’re going to deny her needs, her medical condition, she’s not safe. It’d be like saying ‘that diabetic doesn’t need insulin. I don’t believe it,’ ” Rowan said.
According to Rowan, Lewis was never involved in the daily care for the girl and has not made an effort to accommodate her many problems, which include autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias.
Rowan feels that Lewis’ doubts about the girl’s diagnoses are proof of how little she was involved.
“If she was active and participated in this child’s life … she would know these things,” Rowan said. “Lisa has no knowledge of (the girl) or what (she) needs. The only information she has is the court information, information she’s spent all these years denying.”
Lewis has capitalized on the media attention to the same-sex issue and the girl’s medical condition to get attention and sway people to her side, Rowan said.
The suit has become a “circus” and Rowan said the custody battle is being treated like a criminal case.
“They’ve completely lost the focus. She’s so not even part of it,” Rowan said of her daughter. “Her best interest is not even thought of.”
Rowan said the Court Appointed Special Advocate for the child never spoke to the girl.
Staff from Mercer County Children and Youth Services, which conducted a study of Lewis’ home and said it’s fit for the child, also have never talked with the girl or her mother, Rowan said.
QUOTE CQ“I work this field. One of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of respect for these children. They’re people,” said Rowan.
Until now, Rowan has kept quiet in the media to protect her child but chose to break her silence as St. John mulls whether to give Lewis custody.
“Now, I feel that it’s not helping by not talking about it,” Rowan said. “I don’t feel it’s the good thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.”
Rowan said someday her daughter will read the newspaper stories about the case and she wants her to have all the information.
The girl knows about the court case and Rowan said she’d told her about it in ways that are developmentally appropriate.
“I’m not the type of parent who will tell her it’s not going to hurt when it’s going to … this court case is no different,” Rowan said.
Biologically, Lewis is the girl’s half great-aunt, Rowan said. (She declined to discuss the child’s father, Jeremy Archer, who is serving a life prison sentence for the 2005 murder of Kristen Truchan in Sharon. Archer’s father is Lewis’ half-brother, Rowan said.)
“I’m not going to deny that drop of blood,” Rowan said, but said the familial relationship grants Lewis no rights anywhere to ask for custody of a child.
Rowan said the first time she ever heard Lewis refer to the child as “my daughter” was in court. And Rowan said no one in Lewis’ family has ever called to ask how the girl was, visited her or sent any cards or gifts for holidays or when the girl was in the hospital even before the two women split up.
“The reason they didn’t is the expectation is not there. They never considered her a part of their family,” Rowan said of the Lewises.
Rowan said Lewis has mischaracterized their relationship and created a “false persona” of being a parent to Rowan’s daughter.
“It’s not that we weren’t a couple at the time. We were,” she said.
But they never had a commitment ceremony or wear rings, celebrate an anniversary or share a bank account.
“Just because she shared my bed does not mean she has rights to my child,” Rowan said.
Rowan doesn’t think Lewis’ actions have anything to do with the girl but are part of a “hate campaign” against her and a way to get revenge.
“If I had my way it’d be a big, fat ‘no’ to everything,” Rowan said, but said she’s willing to compromise at this point but they’ve not been able to work it out.
Rowan said she’s offered to let Lewis come stay in her home and visit the girl and build a relationship with her because Lewis is currently a “stranger” to the girl, who will be 11 next month.
The tactic Lewis is taking won’t help her get closer to the child, Rowan said.
“How is scooping her up screaming and crying and dropping her off in Lisa’s living room going to help Lisa?” Rowan asked, alluding to the child’s behavioral issues that she’s currently undergoing weekly therapy for and making progress. “How can we as a family work so hard to improve (her) life to be court ordered to take it away?”
Rowan said if the other people involved in the case accepted her daughter’s limitations, they’d see that what Lewis is asking will not work for the girl.
She noted the girl has an individualized education program that lays out specific ways to accommodate her disabilities but the court’s not taking that into consideration.
“Why does St. John get to impose things on her when those challenges are too big for her to do?” Rowan asked.
Rowan said people suggest she just “make her” do things. But that doesn’t work with a child with her issues.
“You can’t just abruptly challenge her,” Rowan said. “We’re working on it.”
If her daughter were a typical child, Rowan said she might force her to cooperate.
“She has to be able to trust in me or her anxiety can’t be managed at all.”
Since moving to Oxford about two years ago, the girl’s gotten less fearful, Rowan said. She no longer travels everywhere under a blanket to feel safe as she did for three years, including when St. John tried to interview her. The judge refused to talk with her from underneath the blanket, Rowan said.
Though she’s made improvements, the girl suffered setbacks when her mother didn’t come home last fall because she spent the night in Mercer County Jail. She refused to go to school for a while and is now home-schooled and won’t play outside alone anymore, Rowan said.
The girl has a gastronomy tube in her abdomen and can eat regular food but sometimes she refuses, Rowan said. She also relies on a wheelchair to get around sometimes – on a “good day” she is “in and out” of it - and has a number of other pieces of adaptive equipment.
“It’s not like I can go into a mall and order up medical equipment and diagnoses for my kid like at a food court,” Rowan said of doubts about the veracity of the child’s condition. “It’s not possible.”
Whalen has criticized Rowan in court because of photos she’s posted on the Internet of the girl and at a pumpkin patch when she’s supposed to be so sick.
“They would rather interpret her wellness on a Facebook photo,” Rowan said of critics, noting that the girl should be able to lead as full a life as possible.
“Are you saying she should never have a good day? She should be laying in a hospital bed her entire life? I feel like they’re taking something from her. Like she doesn’t matter,” Rowan said.
The pumpkin patch trip happened on a whim on the way home from the doctor when the girl asked to stop. The business was actually closed, but the owner let them go in and snap some photos and get a pumpkin, Rowan said.
Rowan said they were donated a trip to Florida and carried the girl to the ocean because they want her to enjoy life as much as she can. Rowan said she would make that trip “100 times over to give her that memory.”
“Why would Lisa Lewis not be happy for this child?” Rowan asked. “We do everything we can in our power to give her the quality of life any child should have. Everything we can do, we do do but we do it differently.”
Whalen has said Rowan has taken the girl to different doctors and hospitals to try and get specific diagnoses, but they’ve only seen a “probable” diagnosis for mitochondrial disease and that reports have been based on what Rowan has told the physicians. He said they asked for a test that would definitively tell if the girl has the disorder, but Rowan has refused to have it done because it would be too painful for the child.
“For them to say that I doctor hop is just sensationalizing,” Rowan said.
The girl only has two medical charts: One in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. She’s seen a number of specialists due to the nature of her disease but they all deal with the same files.
“Her medical care is so important that it needs to be that way,” Rowan said.
As for the test Whalen refers to, Rowan said a muscle biopsy is not recommended by any of the girl’s doctors and is no longer the preferred diagnostic tool.
Rowan’s heard people claim she must have Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a term used to describe people who make a person in their care sick on purpose or exaggerate an illness for attention, and scoffs at the idea.
“To whom am I getting attention or sympathy from?” she asked, suggesting people look up just what that disorder entails and they’ll see she doesn’t fit the profile.
As of Friday, St. John hadn’t ruled on Lewis’ motion for custody after a trial Oct. 2. Rowan said she can’t fathom what a decision in Lewis’ favor would mean for her family.
“I have not fought this hard to keep her well and give her a quality of life to just hand her over willingly to someone who isn’t prepared to properly meet her needs,” Rowan said.
It’s what any good mother would do, she said.
“I’m not special.”