Kellie Lechuga meets with Robin Maxey of Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney's Office to appeal the state's plan for her granddaughter being sent to Mexico. / Carol Currie, (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal
SALEM, Ore. -- State and federal officials are adamant that it not be called a deportation of an American citizen.
But for all intents and purposes, it is.
Silverton-born Susana (her has been changed in this story to protect her identity) nods when family members speak to her in Spanish, but it's not the 6-year-old's native tongue. Her first language is English.
"Te amo, Abuela (I love you, Grandma)," Susana says with a bat of her lush eyelashes after her grandmother coaches her in Spanish. But she's quick to point out in perfect English that she is supposed to call Kerrie Lechuga "nana."
"Nana says I have to call her Nana because she said calling her Grandma makes her feel really old," Susana says inside the Salem home she visits two weekends per month.
The moppet's deft handling of her grandmother's vanity is wise beyond her years, but the child shows little understanding of what the state of Oregon has in store for her, of which she has no control.
If the Oregon Department of Human Services and juvenile court system follow through with their anticipated current plan, soon the child, currently a ward of the courts and in state custody because of her mother's ongoing drug addiction, will be reunited with her biological father in another country.
Alfonso G. Pantoja is a Mexican national said to be living in the village of Vista Hermosa in his native state of Guanajuato, Mexico, a village of nearly 600 people about 200 miles from Mexico City. The United States deported Alfonso last fall after he was paroled from the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he had served time for an assault conviction.
It's a plan that might sound practical on paper - reuniting child with parent - but in principle, it strikes panic in the hearts of Susana's grandparents, who fear for their granddaughter, who has never visited Mexico, been on a plane or even left Oregon's Mid-Valley.
Kerrie and her husband, Victor, stay calm for Susana's sake, but their anxiety is thick in the room.
The reunification scenario is warranted, according to the state, because the Lechugas' daughter, Gloria Segura, who is Susana's mother, is not up to caring for her own child due to an ongoing drug addiction.
If Alfonso was stable, Kerrie said, she and her husband still would mourn the loss of visits with their granddaughter, but they wouldn't be as frightened as they are now. They say her safety is being compromised because the DHS is ignoring Susana's father's documented criminally violent past and longstanding alcohol-related problems.
His history, the Lechugas say, should be warning enough to abandon the plan to send their granddaughter to a foreign country.
The grandparents point to crime reports and probable cause statements with the Salem Police Department and the Marion County court system to support their allegations about Alfonso's parental failings. The documents show a pattern, three incidents in 2012 alone, of Alfonso becoming violent with women while under the influence of intoxicants and attacking women in the presence of their children.
A search of the Oregon Judicial Information Network shows Alfonso G. Pantoja was convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants in 2007, giving false information to police in both 2007 and 2008, and felony assault in 2012 and 2013.
In one instance, a 9-year-old called 911 to report that Alfonso had allegedly "head-butted" her mother.
Officials with the Oregon DHS refused to comment on the specifics of Susana's case, saying they were bound by concerns for the child's privacy. They would only offer the Statesman Journal generic policy information, and said the agency could not speak about Susana or the proposed parental reunification plan.
Reuniting children with their legal parents is the priority for DHS when possible.
Attempts by the Statesman Journal to contact Alfonso in Mexico were unsuccessful.
The couple readily admit that Kerrie's daughter, American-born Gloria Maria Segura, is not a fit parent at this time either.
Gloria has repeatedly claimed she wants to get into an alcohol and drug dependency treatment program but has consistently failed to follow through. She routinely neglects to provide samples for urinalysis, as well. But she says she loves her daughter and wants her to stay with other family here in the United States "where she'll be safe."
As a result of her drug addiction, Gloria has forfeited her parental rights, and Susana has become a ward of the state.
"Gloria is a meth addict," Kerrie said. "I love her and would defend her to the death, but we can't deny she needs help, and until she gets it, she's not good for Susana, either. ... We'd take her in a heartbeat."
DHS cannot disclose why the Lechugas are not being considered to care for Susana. When a child becomes a ward of the courts and is in custody of DHS, a Permanency Plan and a Concurrent Permanency Plan are developed. The Permanency Plan is always reunification, and the Concurrent Permanency Plan is typically guardianship or adoption. Relatives can be considered as caregivers.
The DHS plans work simultaneously. A timeline for implementation is set by the federal government, and within 15 months of a child being brought into substitute care, a permanency plan is expected to be implemented. Judges can make exceptions to this timeline.
"We love her foster family, too, and would support Susana staying with them even. We just don't want Susana sent to a dangerous part of Mexico."
Kerrie said she and Victor have tried to get Gloria into rehab to clean up her act. They have told her, they say, "a hundred times that she will lose her, but she's too drugged up to care," Kerrie said.
"So we have been going to the court hearings and trying to convince the DHS to let us have her. Or at the very least, let her stay with the foster family, where she knows love and where we can visit her. It's awful that they want to yank her out of a place she knows and loves and send her off to a foreign country. My granddaughter is confused and upset. We were told not talk about it with her, so we don't, but she knows because they (DHS) talk about it."
Kerrie can't comprehend why the state won't allow her and her husband to care for Susana. They believe their stability - she has worked for the state Employment Department for almost 24 years and Victor has driven a truck hauling milk and other liquids for Milky-Way Transport for more than six years - makes them a logical choice to provide a home for Susana. Kerrie also provides health insurance for the child with the Oregon Health Plan as the secondary provider, according to the provided state reports.
DHS has told the Statesman Journal that a biological parent trumps a grandparent in permanency placements. The Lechugas say they understand the reason for the rule, and know that rules are designed to protect and help people, but they point to Alfonso's criminal record as a reason there needs to be some sort of "rule bending."
DHS won't comment on the specifics of Alfonso's fitness to parent despite the Statesman Journal having police and court records of his crimes in the United States.
"When there is no viable reason to keep a child from being reunited with a parent, we don't," said Kathy Prouty, permanency and adoption manager for the Department of Human Services.
The Lechugas admit that they, too, have some shortcomings, but believe those pale next to Susana's father.
They acknowledge that there might be questions about their fitness to care for a child. Several paragraphs in the DHS case reports about Susana's behavior following visits with her grandparents were redacted before they were shared with the Statesman Journal.
Without being able to verify the missing comments, written by the child's DHS caseworker, it's impossible to know whether there are reasons that would support DHS' apparent refusal to consider the grandparents as custodial caretakers.
The Lechugas admit that Victor has had three domestic violence charges against him, none more recent than 10 years ago.
"He had issues with his ex-wife, they were misdemeanors, and he has never ever hurt me or the kids," Kerrie said.
They point, however, to DHS allowing them continued monthly weekend visitations with their granddaughter as an acceptance of their fitness to care for the girl.
The agency inspected the Lechugas' home, and issued a list of "fix-its," that Victor said he made within two days of the DHS visit. The state's case-plan for Susana also says "there have been no reported concerns by the foster parents about the visits with grandparents," and she was allowed to stay with them as recently as Valentine's Day weekend.
DHS in control
The Department of Human Services works from the position that in many cases, reunification is in the best interest of a child.
A review of the "Child Specific Case Plan" prepared by DHS for Susana was provided to the Statesman Journal by the Lechugas.
It states Susana is a "petite 7-year-old girl," but she is only 6 according to the birth date listed on the report. It states she is bilingual and of Hispanic descent, and makes no mention of her American citizenship and her American mother and grandmother.
It notes that the father reports that he misses his daughter and that he has a strong connection with her. But it also states he was incarcerated for assaulting his female roommate, and abandoned Susana without "making appropriate arrangements for her care." The DHS report says it arranged for Susana to visit him while he was in prison, and that he was to have continued phone-call visitation.
The report also states that he does not have "adequate knowledge to fulfill care-giving responsibilities and tasks, and on a previous occasion, allowed her unrestricted contact with unsafe individuals."
Beyond chronicling the inability of Gloria to enroll in substance-abuse rehabilitation and take parenting classes, the plan also outlines monthly visits Susana has had with her mother, and visitation Susana had with her father at the Oregon State Penitentiary before his deportation. It recommended individual counseling services to help the child address her "emotional difficulties due to neglect."
It added that Alfonso had not been able to maintain telephone contact with Susana and that he planned to reside with his family in Guanajuato upon his deportation.
Conditions to return Susana to her father, as outlined by the DHS in its plan, require him to cooperate with a current safety plan and continue it over time, and cooperate with others approved by the DHS to come into the home to monitor child safety. But it makes no provision for his complying with these mandates or show that they have happened outside of Oregon. The report also says a parent must demonstrate a safe, stable living environment, but it does not catalog how the DHS will ensure the child's safety when it ends oversight of the child once the plane lands in Mexico.
DHS procedure also dictates that the caseworker visit the home the child will be transferred to in Mexico, but DHS cannot say whether this has been done in Susana's case.
'Case by case basis'
Prouty describes DHS' reunification procedure as a "legal obligation that works to reunite children with their legal parents."
DHS policy dictates that reunification occur "at the earliest time a child's legal parent can meet the safety needs of the child regardless of whether that parent was the parent from whose home the child was removed."
Prouty said each child's situation is considered on a case-by-case basis, but provided there is no evidence a parent has child abuse, neglect or molestation charges against them (now or previously) and that supervision is not an issue, then there is "no legal reason" why the state shouldn't work on a reunification plan for the minor. A parent's residence in a foreign country does not disqualify them from consideration for a reunification plan.
"Each case is different, and it's hard to speak in generalities, but if there are no petition allegations (child abuse or neglect charges, etc.), then there is no viable reason to keep a child from being reunited with a parent," Prouty said.
She said when there is a parent in a foreign country, the department works with multiple parties to ensure the child's well-being is maintained during the transition.
Angelica Quintero, the DHS international case consultant in the permanency and adoption unit, said
that when a child is reunited with a parent in a foreign country, the child is accompanied by a DHS employee who oversees the hand-off, and is sent with an envelope containing his or her birth certificate, passport, the location of the nearest American consulate, and medical and immunization records. It is up to the parent in the foreign country to help the child maintain contact with family members remaining in the United States.
At the time of reunification, DHS closes the Oregon case and has no further contact with the child or the parent.
"Generally, once we hand off, the DHS case ends, and there is no DHS oversight," Prouty said. "There are times when the receiving country will have the equivalent of DHS, and we'll work with them to help support the family, help with getting the child a doctor or enrolled in school, something like that. So there could be a little supervision, but it's typically three to six months at the most."
This lack of oversight frightens the Lechugas. They worry Alfonso will cut Susana off from her American family. Kerrie alleges that DHS is telling Susana that she can Skype (video phone conference) with her family here in Oregon, but she says there is little Internet access in Vista Hermosa.
"I visit small towns in Mexico twice a year, and they barely have house phones there," Kerrie said. "Very few have computers, and there is no WiFi in every home. They're setting her up to believe she will maintain ties, when in fact, she will lose touch with the only people who love her and she loves.
"When I found her last year when she was supposed to be in his care, she had only the clothes on her back and no shoes," Kerrie said. "He is not interested in parenting. ... He doesn't care about her."
In a Feb. 19 letter appealing to Gov. John Kitzhaber to intervene, Kerrie stated, "Mr. Pantoja offered to sell my granddaughter to me for the price of an immigration attorney so that he could remain in this country."
They also allege he left her with neighbors for weeks at a time, strangers to the little girl.
The Governor's Advocacy Office called Kerrie and told her that the governor had asked it to review the case. They advised her that if DHS was complying with state law, then they were not sure what could be done.
The northeast Salem elementary school first-grader, who "loves, loves, loves the color purple, but also pink, and red, and yellow," has settled in comfortably with a foster family here in the valley.
Kerrie said the child has a strong relationship with her foster family, and she believes they have helped their granddaughter thrive. She frets that DHS is accelerating the case to send Susana to Mexico because it's aware that she has talked to the media.
Earlier this year, she said, a DHS caseworker told her the girl's permanency hearing wouldn't take place until April, but on a recent visitation weekend with her granddaughter, the girl's foster mother told Kerrie that DHS advised her to tell the Lechugas they should be planning their "farewell" visit with their granddaughter this week.
They are frantic. They claim the state is "deporting" their granddaughter. But the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, insists that no American-born citizen can be deported. A spokesman for the agency listened to details of the Lechuga case and concluded that it was for the courts to handle at a state level, and said it would not intervene.
Victor, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and is now a legal resident, shakes his head as he spends time with his wife and granddaughter before preparing to leave for work at 2 a.m.
He questions why the state can't send Susana to visit her father for a few months if they must appear to be interested in reuniting parent and child. This would give Gloria, the mother, a chance to get her life together and her grandparents the opportunity to watch her grow into a bright, confident, educated young woman.
"I was born in Mexico, I know what it's like," Victor said. "I know how many people quit school instead of going because you have to eat, and you have to work to pay for the food. Why can't she just go visit and come back?"
Kerrie, who was born in the United States, said she wants her granddaughter's story told to prevent "this innocent little girl from being sent to a foreign country where she doesn't know anyone." Kerrie fears that she, Victor, Gloria, and other family members will never see her again.
Kerrie said no one will answer her question of what happens if the new custodial parent becomes unfit for the parenting role in Mexico.
"They just ship her down there, and then they're done? This is an American citizen, doesn't she have rights?" she asked.
DHS said that Susana would be welcome to return to the United States when she turns 18. But that's a dozen years from now, and for Kerrie and Victor, that's too long an opportunity for their granddaughter to fall through the cracks. Quintero, the DHS international case consultant, also said that Susana's father can apply for permanent custody through his country.
Caught in the middle
The little girl who loves math doesn't seem aware that she might soon lose contact with the people and places she knows and loves so well.
"Are we the perfect family? No." Kerrie said. "But we are whole and healthy, and here, in the country of her birth. Why does DHS choose to ignore our insistence and proof that Susana's father is an unfit parent? She shouldn't be made to suffer for her mother's actions."
Kerrie wonders why DHS refuses to acknowledge or mention Alfonso's problems with alcohol and his violent assault history.
Kerrie said the state should look beyond the paperwork. It should recognize that they are taking a little girl and putting her with a man who hasn't demonstrated that he can care for her. She said that would be hard enough here in the United States, where she has family and her surroundings are familiar.
Sending her thousands of miles away with no oversight is wrong, Victor adds.
"It's such a different world. It is not the same as it is here," Kerrie said.
Kerrie isn't confident the governor or state Senate President Peter Courtney, to whom she also appealed, will be able to do anything to help. But she said she would keep writing letters and talk to anyone who would listen if it would prevent her granddaughter from "being deported," as she told the governor's staff.
She shakes off anyone who tries to correct her and tell her it's not a deportation. She knows it's not, but she says it "definitely feels like one."
"I will go down fighting," she added.
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Read the original story: Ore. plans to reunite U.S. child with father in Mexico