Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Canadian child trapped in U.S. foster care: Casualty of a newspaper’s jingoism?

Twelve-year-old Noah Kirkman, of Calgary, Canada has been trapped in Oregon foster care for nearly two years. He may lose his mother, Lisa Kirkman, his stepfather, and even his Canadian citizenship. And while most of the blame for this rests with the Oregon Department of Human Services and a judge in Lane County, the state's largest newspaper may have worsened the climate for this child and prolonged his suffering. Perhaps that's why the newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, seems to have averted its eyes from the case.

The nearest newspaper to the scene, the Eugene Register-Guard, has had no such hesitation. In a comprehensive account in February, the Register-Guard explained what happened this way:

Kirkman said she came to Lane County from Canada on a visit in the summer of 2008 and left Noah in Oakridge with the boy's stepfather — Kirkman's husband — for a vacation. … Oakridge police kept spotting Noah, then 10, on the streets that summer — trespassing at the city's industrial park, sitting alone on a fence that had been knocked down, riding his bicycle without a helmet — and drove him home a couple of times, police chief Luis Gomez said. Seeing a pattern, police referred at least two incidents to the DHS, Gomez said. And DHS took custody of the child.

(And see also CNN's interview with Lisa Kirkman and her lawyer).

DHS and the judge would not return Noah to his mother. They would not turn the case over to Canadian authorities to let them decide if Noah's mother is fit. And they would not let him stay with his stepfather right there in Oregon. Instead, they've moved him from foster home to foster home, school to school – in other words, they've treated him just like any other Oregon foster child.


This case isn't all that hard to understand given the mentality of Oregon DHS in general and some recent events in particular.

Oregon tears apart families at a rate 70 percent above the national average and double and triple the rate in states widely considered to be, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe. This take-the-child-and-run mentality is deeply ingrained. Oregon has been taking children at one of the highest rates in the nation since at least 1985.

Then, a few months after Noah Kirkman was placed in foster care, the Oregonian ran a huge story about a little girl named Adrianna Romero Cram. Born in this country to Mexican parents, Oregon officials sent her to live with Mexican relatives who planned to adopt her. Adrianna endured months of abuse before those relatives killed her. Other relatives and teachers repeatedly warned Mexican child welfare authorities that the child was in danger.

Notwithstanding the fact that American CPS workers, even in Oregon, make exactly the same kinds of mistakes, the Oregonian's approach was to whip up a jingoistic frenzy. The theme that dominated the coverage, much of it written by a reporter who, thankfully, no longer is with the paper, is that officials in foreign countries could not be trusted to protect children, and no child should be sent across the border until that nation could prove it lived up to Oregon standards.

Months later, the newspaper displayed no second thoughts when Oregon caseworkers and Oregon supervisors made almost identical mistakes in the death of Jeanette Maples, an Oregon child who lived – and died - right in Oregon.

The coverage had its intended effect.

To see the double-standards at play here, one need simply compare Oregon to Russia.

Right now, Russia is threatening to ban adoptions of Russian children by Americans after an American mother stamped her Russian child "return to sender" and shipped him back. Several other American parents, albeit an extremely tiny minority, have killed the Russian children they adopted. Many in the United States, especially adoption advocates are outraged, are outraged; they say Russia is grossly overreacting.

But there was no such outrage, and the Oregonian was downright giddy, when Oregon DHS responded to the newspaper's stories about Adrianna Cram by imposing a nine-month moratorium on placing Oregon children in any other country anywhere on earth.

When the moratorium was lifted this year, Oregon imposed a series of conditions, including, according to the Oregonian: "Adoptive relatives in other countries will be required to take parenting training using an Oregon-approved curriculum." (Because, apparently, Mexicans, Canadians and the entire rest of the world can't possibly teach someone how to be an adoptive parent without help from Oregon.)

Given the take-the-child-and-run mentality and the extra fear of being the judge who sends another child to a foreign country (albeit not foreign to the child) only to have something go wrong, it's no wonder Noah Kirkman is trapped in foster care – deprived of his mother, his father, and his stepfather.

Noah's mother has gone public with her fight, including a Facebook page with 2,500 followers. And the story has been gaining increasing media attention, first in Canada on the Calgary affiliates of CBC and CTV, the Calgary Herald and other media, including the nation's most prestigious newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and now in the United States. In addition to CNN, Lisa Kirkman has been on Portland television stations KGW and KATU. But if there's been any coverage at all in the Oregonian, I've missed it.

It's not just Noah who is suffering, of course. All that time money and effort wasted doing enormous emotional harm to Noah is being stolen from finding the next Jeanette Maples – the next child in real danger, overlooked because workers are inundated with false allegations, trivial cases, and needless foster care.