There’s optimism for a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community that has been shaken over allegations of child abuse.
Four community men have had their charges dropped, and more accused are expected to have their charges stayed later this week.
One man who had his charges dropped said it brings some relief. He said he hopes the community can now rebuild, and the dropped charges will ease the return of community children who were apprehended by Child and Family Services.
"I’m very happy to have the charges resolved, and hopefully that’s a big roadblock out of the way to the return of the children," the man said outside a southern Manitoba courthouse on Tuesday after his charges were stayed.
A father of nine, all of his children remain in the care of CFS.
By law, the Mennonite residents and their community can’t be named to protect identities of the children.
About 15 community adults were charged with such offences as assault or assault with a weapon, the bulk of which were allegedly committed on a number of children between July 2011 and January 2013.
Some were allegedly assaulted with objects such as a leather strap, cattle prod, whip and board.
Community members said the charges related to "extreme discipline," while the Crown has also alleged that abuse was committed in an attempt to solicit false allegations of sexual abuse.
In response to the allegations of assault, CFS apprehended all of the community’s children in February and June of 2013.
Six children have since been returned to two families, but 36 remain in foster placements with Mennonite caregivers.
On Tuesday, four men agreed to sign one-year peace bonds and the Crown dropped the assault charges against them.
In signing the peace bonds, they didn’t admit to any criminal misconduct.
Two women and one man had their charges put to Winnipeg on Thursday, and it’s expected they’ll also sign peace bonds and have their charges stayed.
Crown attorney Nicole Roch indicated that those who were offered the peace bond option were considered less blameworthy than other accused, and had been working hard with CFS.
The four men who signed their bonds on Tuesday have agreed to continue counselling as directed by CFS. They also can’t permit their children to be in the care of others unless approved by CFS.
In addition, they can’t have contact or communicate with four men who will continue to be prosecuted.
Those four men — who face numerous charges of assault and assault with a weapon, and now appear to be the focus of the prosecution — had their next court date set for March 4.
Roch said the Crown is focusing its case on the most serious allegations, but also that peace bonds were offered in the interests of the public and the Mennonite community itself.
"We want to obviously deal with this matter in a respectful and considerate way in terms of the community," Roch said.
For those who sign peace bonds and have their charges stayed, it means any no-contact order that formed part of their bail terms is now void.
One community member said that the former co-accused were forbidden from contacting each other and children.
The lifting of those conditions has brought a sense of "freedom," he said. It’s expected to make life easier at the community, where important decisions are made collectively and the church forms a central part of their lives.
It’s also hoped that the staying of charges will pave the way for the return of the children.
"We’re hopefully on the mend now," he said.
Roch said she couldn’t speak to whether this will speed the return of children to their homes, as that’s up to CFS.
While he can’t say at this point whether the dropped charges will necessarily speed up or ease the return of children, General CFS Authority CEO Jay Rodgers said it is a "significant development."
"We weren’t going to be able to move forward as long as there’s these outstanding charges … it sounds like a significant kind of complicating factor has been removed," Rodgers said.
One of the issues that complicated matters was the risk of placing child victims or witnesses with people going to trial. Depending on who is signing the peace bonds, this may remove that factor.
That may mean CFS can now actively pursue the return of children with those who have signed peace bonds.
The return of five children to two families was expected to happen soon, even before Tuesday’s developments.
In the meantime, there’s a sense of hope for the "horse-and-buggy" community.
The lone teacher of its one-room schoolhouse is among those expected to sign a peace bond in Winnipeg on Thursday and have her charges dropped.
"It makes me very happy because I can have contact with my friends again," she said. "It was hard to not be able to teach my pupils and be separated from my friends."
She said she hopes to teach her pupils again someday and see their "happy faces." She said the prospect of others having their charges dropped gives hope that the ordeal will end one day.
"It makes everyone happy."
Three women also still face assault charges in relation to alleged abuse, but it’s not clear whether they’ll be offered peace bonds or some other diversion from the court system.