Judge rules that Salem-area girl will have to move to Mexico

SALEM, Ore. -- A Marion County judge decided Thursday afternoon that a 6-year-old girl born in Oregon will have to go to Mexico and live with her father.

The girl's grandmother, Kerrie Lechuga, fought to keep her here. She believes her granddaughter has no business going to live with her father. Alfonso Pantoja-Samano is a convicted felon.

She broke into tears after the judge's ruling.

Gov. John Kitzhaber ordered a review of the case last week.

The girl is currently in foster care and has bounced around from home to home in recent years.

Last month, a judge ordered her to live with Pantoja-Samano. He was recently deported to Mexico.

The judge had two options: keep the girl in foster care while her mother, a meth addict, tries to get clean or send the girl to Mexico to live with her father, a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon who served time for assault in Oregon.

Judge Jamese Rhoades said she based her decision in part on the father's long list of promises. Those included staying sober, going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and not having alcohol in his home. That hope was not shared by Lechuga, however.

"He couldn't follow the rules here. He couldn't complete his alcohol treatment here. What makes them think he's going to follow through there?" Lechuga said.

Pantoja-Samano has also committed to doing individual counseling and counseling with this daughter, enrolling his daughter in school in Mexico and finding resources to helping her adjust, given that she has expressed concerns about her bilingual abilities. Additionally, he's told the Oregon Department of Human Services he will help the girl maintain weekly phone calls or Skype calls with her relatives in Oregon.

Oregon's Department of Human Services spokesman Gene Evans said it will be the responsibility of Mexican officials to hold Pantoja-Samano accountable. He said a home study has been done by Mexican child welfare workers that showed the girl will be in a safe and stable environment despite her father's past. Evans also said Oregon's DHS workers have negotiated an extended period of time for Mexico's child welfare workers to provide monthly reports on the girl's progress.

Asked by On Your Side Investigator Anna Canzano what would happen if the father fails to live up to his commitments, Evans said "We would be involved in that through the consulate because this child is an American and Mexican dual citizen, but she is under the custody of her father once the reunification takes place."

Pointing out that this is the second time the case has gone under legal review, Evans added "This was about as good -- following policy following state law, following guidance -- as any child welfare case we've seen in the state. All cases should be handled this well."

He wasn't sure about the timeline for the girl's departure for Mexico.

Canzano also inquired with Kitzhaber's office about whether the governor is interested in intervening any further, or whether he has the power to override the judge's decision. His spokeswoman Nkenge Harmon-Johnson said, "In the judicial branch, a superior (appellate) court would be the place that a judge's ruling could be overturned, if her decision were appealed by one of the parties."

Lechuga knows one reason DHS balked at letting her care for the little girl. She has a conviction for animal neglect in 2005 because horses and dogs died on her property. Lechuga says her daughter and Pantoja-Samano were supposed to care for the animals but did not.