Foreign mother may be sent home while child treated for cancer

A mother whose daughter is suffering a rare form of cancer at an area hospital could be asked to leave early next month.

Barbados resident Petrah Gooding brought her 7-year-old daughter Niamh Stoute to Atlanta in November to be treated for neuroblastoma at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Aflac Cancer center.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement extended Niamh’s nine-month visitor’s visa to allow her to continue receiving treatment, but Gooding was told she would have to leave her daughter’s side on Sept. 2.

“I’m at a loss for why they would approve an extension for my daughter and not for the mother who is taking care of her,” Gooding told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by phone Thursday evening.

Immigration officials declined to discuss how how Gooding was denied the same extension as her daughter, but spokeswoman Ana Santiago said the issue was being investigated.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family. While we cannot discuss an individual case due to privacy laws, we are looking into this matter urgently," Santiago said.

Terry Bird, former chief counsel for the Atlanta office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency typically allows foreign parents to extend their stays up to a year when they have children getting American medical treatment.

After that, the local immigration office can choose to put off sending the parent home, said Bird, who was chief counsel in Atlanta for 25 years before retiring in 2007.

"Usually, mother and child will be treated the same," he said. "Nobody would ask the mother to go home and leave the child here alone."

That's what Gooding faces. The 30-year-old mother of two and the Children's Healthcare staff are baffled.

“This is the oddest circumstance I’ve seen,” said Maura Savage, the Children’s Healthcare social worker helping Gooding.

Gooding brought Niamh here in November upon the recommendation of an oncologist in Barbados. Because treatment in Barbados for neuroblastoma is nine months, Gooding applied for corresponding visitor visas for herself and for her daughter.

But the minimum treatment for Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a condition that for Niamh, caused massive tumors to form across her abdomen, was 18 months at Children's Healthcare.

Gooding applied for an extension when she wasn't helping Niamh move around or cope with the painful effects of high-intensity chemotherapy.

"I'm concentrating on trying to help her get through this," Gooding said. "And now I have to concentrate on this?"

Should Gooding be asked to leave the U.S., she would go home and come back as soon as possible. But that would mean a five-hour flight from Atlanta to Barbados, and as much as a 24-hour wait before she could return, she said.

"That's the only choice they give me," Gooding said. "But she needs me to be with her."

Gooding has been separated from a husband and 2-year-old son during the ordeal. She has assured immigration officials she isn't trying stay in the U.S.

"My life is there," she said. "The one thing driving Niamh through this whole treatment is, ‘are we closer to getting back home?'"