Lisa Kirkman lives with her seven-year-old daughter in Calgary, Canada. But her twelve-year-old son has been in a series of Oregon foster homes. Her case has gotten a lot of attention in Canada. As Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, the story is extremely complex. It shows how hard it is to figure out what's in a child's best interest across an international border.
Lisa Kirkman was going through several moves in Canada in 2008 when she decided to leave her son with his stepdad John in Oakridge Oregon. Kirkman says the boy drew attention from the police.
"So throughout the summer he was stopped, usually it was with other kids but sometimes it was by himself. For things like riding his bike without a helmet. Or playing where he shouldn't have been playing. You know, it's a really small rural town."
Kirkman's husband, the boy's stepfather, is now back in Canada with her. He was present while she talked to OPB. Kirkman says the cops didn't recognize the ten-year-old Canadian boy they had to drive home. His stepdad had lived in town for two years without any kids. So, she says, the police thought it was strange that suddenly he had a child.
"...so they're trying to figure out what the deal is and that's why they called DHS. "
The Department of Human Services handles child protection in Oregon. Luis Gomez is the police chief in Oakridge. He didn't want to go on tape. But he says the child told a policeman he was afraid, and his stepfather had hurt him. The police report all allegations of abuse to DHS. And, Gomez says, the State police found the child walking along highway 58 outside of town. Kirkman says at the end of the summer, she got a call from DHS, and explained that her son was on vacation in Oregon.
"What I didn't know was that they were calling Canadian Social Services. And they basically said does this child have an open social service file."
Her son did have a file in Canada. DHS couldn't read the file. But the agency decided that the 10 year old was at risk of harm, and through juvenile court proceedings, took him into the state's custody. The case is complicated because the facts are in dispute over Kirkman's record as a parent in Canada. OPB has not been able to review court records or social service files related to the case. The register guard newspaper reported that the Oregon court wants Kirkman to go through therapy for borderline personality disorder. Kirkman says she's a fit parent. But she acknowledges one instance when her custody over the boy was challenged in a British Columbia court.
"The case was thrown out."
Kirkman's son has turned 11 and then 12 years old in a series of Oregon foster homes. And the boy's attorney in Oregon says that's where he wants to stay:
"The child is very clear. He does not want to live with his mother. He does not want to live with his grandparents because he believes that that will simply be another way to gain access to him."
Kirkman says the people surrounding her son in Oregon have worked hard to alienate him from her. She only gets to talk with him once every two weeks. In the Canadian and US media, she has characterized the case as an over reaction by child protective authorities that have kept a child from his mother and native country.
Gloria Anderson is the Manager of International Affairs at DHS in Oregon. She says DHS is trying to find a way to return him to Canada.
"We are all working hard to come up with the best and quickest way to get this child back up to his homeland. And that is the direction that the agency is wanting to pursue."
DHS says it has successfully reunited 12 children with parents outside the US in the past year. Another 25 children are somewhere in the process. Most of the kids are from Mexico. But they're also from Japan, Vietnam, and Central America. Canada's Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from Kirkman's case. The Ministry told OPB in an e-mail that it will abide by the final decision of the Lane county court. Bradley Lechman Su is an expert on international family law. He says that's in keeping with the law
Lechman: "any child found or located in the state or present, the juvenile court can exercise their jurisdiction over that child."
Kirkman meanwhile says has filed an application using the Hague Convention to pursue her case using international law.
Amelia Templeton reporting.