She lost her mom in South Africa. Legal issues are keeping her from family in B.C.
B.C. woman says legal red tape means her 9-year-old great-niece can't come to live in Canada yet
A B.C. woman says she's spent the past two years fighting to bring her great-niece to Canada, ever since the girl was discovered struggling to survive near her mother's body on their remote South African farm property.
Lisa Pyne-Mercier, 52, who has been named the legal guardian of nine-year-old Ryleigh Ridland, describes the international child custody case as a tangled mess that's left the girl living with a foster family in South Africa while she battles for custody from thousands of kilometres away in Shawnigan Lake, B.C.
According to Pyne-Mercier, a teacher made the grisly discovery when she went to check on the girl on Jan. 9, 2021. Ryleigh was taken to hospital where she was treated for malaria, dehydration and malnutrition, then placed in foster care.
Ryleigh's 31-year-old mother, Jackie Ridland, had died at least eight days earlier, according to authorities, leaving the traumatized girl, then seven, struggling to survive alone in 40 C heat on a rural property near the South African town of Tzaneen, about 360 kilometres northeast of the administrative capital of Pretoria.
"She's a survivor," said Pyne-Mercier of her great-niece. "She had to survive. There was no one around when her mother passed."
Permanent residence claim, study permit both denied
Pyne-Mercier, originally from South Africa herself, was confirmed as the child's legal guardian by a South African High Court on June 28, 2022.
But almost two years since Ryleigh's mother died, Pyne-Mercier says she's faced many administrative hurdles trying to bring the girl to Canada. The main sticking points include the fact that the girl's father still lives in South Africa, and that Jackie Ridland named her aunt, Pyne-Mercier, as Ryleigh's guardian in her will, making the case unusual, as most involve a more direct family member being named guardian.
On Jan. 4, the High Commission of Canada in South Africa, which provides visa and immigration services, wrote a letter to deny Ryleigh's latest application for permanent residence, saying that she does not meet the requirements to immigrate to this country, even after considering all compassionate grounds.
"Though you meet the definition of an orphan under South African law due to abandonment by your biological father, you are not an orphan under Canadian law, the jurisdiction of this present application, because your biological father remains living. In addition, your sponsor does not meet one of the prescribed relationships as she is neither your sibling, your direct aunt as defined, nor your grandparent."
Now, both applications for Ryleigh's permanent residence and a study permit have been denied, according to letter sent the great-aunt and shared with CBC.
Pyne-Mercier says the "cruel" decision is "separating a family because a box has not been ticked." She now plans to try to formally adopt her great-niece, but worries it may be another long, expensive process, that may end in a denial. She says she's already spent close to $20,000 trying to help Ryleigh and bring her to Canada.
"It definitely has surprised me as to how long it's taken and all the red tape and all the bureaucratic nonsense," said Pyne-Mercier. "We are talking about a vulnerable little girl … the system has let this child down."
Long before her niece's death, Pyne-Mercier says she tried to keep in touch with Ryleigh via instant messenger. She said she knew that Ryleigh's mother, a survivor of abuse, had struggled with her mental health.
Documents CBC obtained from the coroner who examined the body say Jackie Ridland's death was natural, but the exact cause of death remains a mystery, given that her body had decomposed in the stifling heat.
Girl survived on noodles, rainwater
Pyne-Mercier teared up recalling how Ryleigh told her she'd managed to survive on peanut butter, dried noodles and rainwater. South African social workers confirmed this with Pyne-Mercier, who says she was also told Ryleigh managed to feed the cat and dog with food pellets after her mother died.
Before her niece died, Pyne-Mercier said she had dreamed of building shelters on the farm to help people who didn't feel welcome in society.
Video and still images of the property provided to Pyne-Mercier by South African social services and viewed by CBC News showed a garbage-strewn brick shack with one small window and a tin roof. In the video, cupboards are seen hanging open — and empty.
"They lived alone. About 15 kilometres outside of [Tzaneen] in the thick bush, no running water, a generator for electricity. For a seven-year-old to understand how to run a generator is not exactly easy," Pyne-Mercier said.
"We did not know [Jackie] lived the way she did. Our entire family was in shock and horror."
Concerns about father's parental rights
In the two years since her mother's death, Ryleigh has lived in two different foster homes, according to her great-aunt and her lawyers.
Despite concerns from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) officials about Ryleigh's status as an orphan because her biological father is still alive, Pyne-Mercier told CBC News she believes he had relinquished his parental rights during his divorce from Jackie Ridland in 2016.
In South Africa, it's also considered abandonment if a child is deserted for no reason and without contact for three months, according to activist and researcher Dee Black from the National Adoption Coalition South Africa (NACSA).
"The father has abandoned the child and has not had communication with the child for more than, well, this has now been two years," Pyne-Mercier said.
She's a survivor. She had to survive. There was no one around when her mother passed.- Lisa Pyne-Mercier, speaking about her great-niece, Ryleigh Ridland
South African attorney Yasmeen Bhamjee represented Pyne-Mercier in the High Court of South Africa, where her guardianship of Ryleigh was confirmed on June 28, 2022.
In an interview with CBC News, Bhamjee said Ryleigh's father has never played a role in her life, noting the couple divorced in 2016.
"In terms of South African law, he has relinquished his rights and abandoned the minor," she said.
CBC News tried to reach Ryleigh's father, but received no response. He lists himself as a self-employed salesman in Johannesburg.
Bhamjee said that as a matter of courtesy, they reached out to Ryleigh's father during the legal process to let him know about Pyne-Mercier's guardianship and intention to move Ryleigh to Canada. She said he expressed no interest in stopping the move, nor had he made any effort to contact his daughter in the past two years.
CBC News also obtained a copy of a handwritten affidavit from the father, dated Dec. 3, 2021, some 11 months after Jackie's death. It stated: "I strongly believe Ryleigh would be better off in Canada with her mother's aunt," due to Pyne-Mercier's ability to provide a "stable" environment.
Ten days before Christmas, Ryleigh wrote a letter to Sean Fraser, the federal immigration minister, asking to come to Canada and live with her great-aunt.
"My name is Ryleigh Ridland. You might know me as FOO1014314," she wrote, referring to her immigration case number. "I only saw my dad twice in my life and both times he was nasty to my mommy."
Wills named great-aunt as guardian
Bhamjee says part of the delay in dealing with Ryleigh's "chaotic" case hinged on a procedural error.
When her mother died, she was placed in temporary safe care after a COVID-19 outbreak at the hospital where she was being treated. There, she was incorrectly classified as a child in need of care by social services, which resulted in a set of rules kicking in that made it more difficult for Pyne-Mercier to take over her guardianship.
According to the lawyer, that procedural misstep resulted in an 18-month legal process to extract Ryleigh from the South African social services system. With that solved, Bhamjee said they needed to prove Pyne-Mercier was the legal guardian.
Bhamjee said the key to legally cementing this fact were two wills that both named Pyne-Mercier as guardian. One belonged to her sister — Giselle Maxine Ellis — who died in 2016. In her will, Bhamjee said Ellis made it clear she wanted her sister to take custody of her children, and by extension their children. Jackie's will also named Pyne-Mercier as Ryleigh's guardian.
Bhamjee says she reached out to advocates and mentors, noting that Ryleigh's case has challenged even top experts in international adoption law.
"She was a traumatized little girl," said Bhamjee in a video call from South Africa. "But in the face of all of that adversity, her tenacity, the fact that she could smile — she's lost so much."
MP urges federal officials to expedite case
Before her niece's tragic death, Pyne-Mercier says she became like a mother to Jackie and like a grandmother to Ryleigh and stayed in touch as much as she could, talking to them for hours on social media, often watching her great-niece giggling, eating pizza or playing in a blanket tent.
In October 2022, a South African social worker wrote to confirm that, given the circumstances, it had been determined that Ryleigh was ostensibly an "orphan" and that Pyne-Mercier was her legal guardian, according to a document from a regional office of South Africa's Ministry of Services to Children, Families and the Elderly.
"The child concerned, Ryleigh Ridland, confidently declared that she would love to live with Lisa Pyne-Mercier and her extended family in Canada," wrote Henriette Els.
Bhamjee calls the delay "procedural" and says Pyne-Mercier may be forced to go back to a lower court in South Africa to officially adopt Ryleigh, despite the fact that she's been confirmed as the child's legal guardian.
Alistair MacGregor, the member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, the riding where Pyne-Mercier lives, has urged the federal immigration minister to expedite the case.
"My office has been involved in assisting the Pyne-Mercier family in bringing Ryleigh to Canada," MacGregor told CBC News in an email. "My staff and I will continue to explore every option in helping to reunite her with her blood relatives."
Child still living in South Africa
In its communications, IRCC has said it is "sensitive to the emotional stress that can be caused when there are issues with cases involving children," but that it must also take precautions to ensure such cases comply with Canadian and international laws.
For now, Ryleigh lives in South Africa with Santie Barnard, a foster parent who has cared for many kids over the years. Barnard was caring for Ryleigh when Pyne-Mercier became her guardian, and they made a financial arrangement for her to continue in that role.
Pyne-Mercier visited Ryleigh on her birthday in October of 2022 and Barnard says the nine-year-old lives for her great-aunt's calls.
"They talk and dance for hours," said Barnard. "During Christmas last year, they cut out some snowflakes. Ryleigh was so looking forward to being in Canada in the snow this Christmas."
Pyne-Mercier says the child's well-being has been forgotten in this drawn-out process, and notes that Ryleigh is about to mark the second anniversary of her mother's death.
"Just to be with her — even if we sit in silence — for her to know that she is not abandoned, and that she is loved."