Child Tug-of-War Spans International Border

“He has to come home.”

Phyllis Heltay’s words hang between desperation and disbelief.

She’s been fighting for over a year to bring her 11-year-old grandson home to Canada, after he was taken into custody by the State of Oregon and placed in foster care.

Noah Kirkman faces the possibility of being permanently adopted out to strangers, despite having a mother and sister in Calgary, and at least three willing homes where the Canadian boy might be cared for by blood-relatives.

One of those relations is Noah’s mother Lisa Kirkman, and therein lies the rub: Oregon’s Department of Human Services considers Lisa such an unfit parent, they’d rather keep Noah in the foster system than let him come home.

They won’t say why. Indeed, officials in that state won’t even acknowledge the existence of the Canadian child in their custody, who lives with a foster family and attends school near Eugene, Oregon.

“I am not able to provide you with any information about specific child welfare cases,” said Gene Evans, a state spokesman.

The silence is official, but Lisa Kirkman has reams of court documents to back her story, which started when social workers arrived on the doorstep, to take Noah away “for a few days.”

That was Sept. 2008, and Lisa has been battling to get her son back ever since, with her last physical contact in July 2009. Since last summer, they’ve only spoken through supervised phone calls.

“It’s an absolute and utter nightmare,” said Lisa, a 34-year-old freelance journalist.

“To me this is an abduction — they took my child from me for no reason.”

Noah and his younger sister Mia were staying with their step-dad in Oregon for the summer, with Lisa joining the family at the end of August to collect them home for school.

Unfortunately, Noah was collected by the local police force first. Officers in Oakridge, Oregon nabbed the boy for riding his bike without a helmet, and then struggled to determine who he was.

Noah is bright, getting top grades, but he has special needs, with severe attention deficit disorder being his main challenge.

Noah’s unusual behaviour probably led the officers to run the boy’s name through their system, where they discovered his past history with Canadian social services.

Noah’s special needs meant Lisa had turned to child and family services in two provinces seeking help — as a result, she has a “record” of family difficulties in Canada.

To make matters more sticky, Lisa has a criminal record in Canada. She is a marijuana crusader and columnist, and was busted years ago for growing medical marijuana without a permit.

That past led Oregon officials to keep Noah and place him in foster care, forcing Lisa to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and swear off drugs before they’ll even consider returning her son.

His American step-father, John, can’t take custody, as he is not a legal guardian.

Despite “testing well”, according to court records and a letter from a Calgary-based psychologist, it was recommended Lisa undergo behavioural therapy, to teach her emotional control.

All the while, as months ticked by, Noah was moved through four different foster homes and various schools. At one point, he was living in a devout Christian home, despite being Jewish.

The seemingly-endless tangle of red-tape has even stymied attempts by Noah’s grandparents from bringing him home. If Lisa isn’t a suitable parent, they argue, why not give Noah to us?

“More than a year ago, we said we’d be willing to take him until this is all sorted out, but we’re still waiting,” said Heltay.

As well as the grandparents, both working professionals in Calgary, Lisa’s sister has offered her home.

Before the grandparents can take the boy, officials in Oregon want a full assessment of their home, and the Heltay’s now await an official inspector who will put their lives under a microscope.

Meanwhile, Lisa can only speak to her son over the phone, trying to remind a boy who last lived with her 20 months ago that he still has a loving family, 1,000 kilometres and an international border away.

“It’s like getting your heart ripped out,” said Lisa.

“If I allowed myself to get too emotional, I couldn’t function. I just have to focus on bringing him home.”

– Article from the Calgary Sun on January 18, 2010.