TORONTO - The toys and children's clothes gather dust in a corner of Panita Chumchantha's home in Ottawa, sad remnants of a gleeful shopping spree she embarked on just over a year ago to welcome to Canada the son she hadn't seen in years.
Seven-year-old Tanadon, however, never showed up.
Because she kept his birth from Canadian immigration officials, Chumchantha's efforts to bring the boy to Canada from her native Thailand are being rebuffed on the grounds that he doesn't qualify as a family member.
"I was shocked," said the 31-year-old mother of three, who makes her home in Ottawa. "I just want to be with my son."
Chumchantha's maternal nightmare began when she got pregnant in Thailand while her adoptive sister was trying to bring her and her mother to Canada.
Stung by the cultural stigma that came with being a single mother in a Thai village and with no knowledge of the immigration process, she kept her baby a secret, putting all thoughts of going to a new country out of her mind as the sponsorship process dragged on.
When her permanent residency finally came through, Chumchantha was caught between leaving her son behind and jeopardizing her aging mother's chances of being with the rest of her family in Canada.
In a blur of confusion, she made the gut-wrenching decision to leave her son with his paternal grandparents, an arrangement she vowed would be temporary.
Now, four years later, not even a birth certificate or photos - both before and after her pregnancy - have helped as Chumchantha grapples with a complex immigration system that's keeping her from the son she failed to declare to Canadian authorities.
"I just didn't know what to do then," she said. "I feel this is not really fair."
Chumchantha's Catch-22 dilemma has struck a chord with Ottawa-area Liberal MP Mauril Belanger, whose complaint is that Canada's immigration system lacks the ability to make exceptions in unique circumstances.
"We have to have a system that's much more flexible than what we have," Belanger said.
The current immigration system's multi-tiered categories and iron-clad rules can not only confuse those required to navigate it, but can also result in a tremendous amount of delay that ultimately leads only to disappointment, he added.
More ministerial discretion is required to allow wiggle room for cases such as Chumchantha's, which don't fit typical guidelines, Belanger said.
"We can't go wasting years and leaving people in limbo."
Chumchantha's request to have her case re-examined has already been dismissed, and she has opted not to appeal the decision to the Federal Court of Canada for fear of losing.
Instead, desperate to experience at least part of her son's childhood, Chumchantha is now considering a novel solution: having her husband of two months adopt the child so the family can be together.
"I want to fight for it," she said.
It won't be easy, warned Mike Bell, an immigration lawyer consulted by the couple.
"There is a potential option for the stepfather to adopt the child, assuming he intends to assume a parental role," Bell said. But it's far from a perfect solution, he warned.
"A holistic approach to the problem has to be pursued." Chumchantha could also request humanitarian and compassionate consideration for her case, although that's usually reserved for refugees who would face significant hardship if made to leave.
So, Chumchantha and her husband have begun consulting adoption agencies. The process is a lengthy one with a $25,000 price tag and an even higher emotional toll.
"Adoption is not for the faint of heart," said Donna Paonessa, Thailand program manager for The Children's Bridge, an international adoption consultant.
"Everything is out of the family's hands and they have no control over anything."
In addition to extensive background checks and a comprehensive home-study, if a family wants to adopt a pre-identified child in Thailand, the process gets complicated overseas, she added.
Thailand requires the birth parents to relinquish all right to the child in court before a pre-identified child can be adopted. For a case like Chumchantha's, that could create problems which would stretch the typical three-year adoption process even further.
Still, nothing is impossible.
Chumchantha's daily routine is now punctuated by lawyer visits, consultations with support groups and appeals to politicians. Meanwhile, as she juggles her job, her new marriage and her push to be reunited with her son, she clings to the crackly long distance calls that serve as her only connection to her child.
"When we had the sponsorship denied, he told me, 'You should just put me in your suitcase and take me back,"' she said.
"It's really hard."