BRANDON -- A Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community is at a "critical" point in its survival nearly a year after Child and Family Services started removing all its children, an adviser to the community says.
Three dozen of the apprehended children are still in foster care, Peter Rempel writes in an open letter he released Wednesday in the hope of making officials and the public aware of what's at stake.
"I don't know if I dare to hope that there will be immediate action toward returning the children," Rempel said of his letter.
The following is an open letter Peter Rempel released regarding Child and Family Services' apprehension of children from a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community.
Will we fail the Old Order Mennonite community?
Feb. 11 will be the anniversary of the apprehension of the first set of 22 Old Order Mennonite children still in the custody of Child and Family Services. Another set of 20 children were apprehended by CFS in June. In addition a number of adults face charges laid 12 to 6 months ago but the manner and timing of the disposition of their charges remains unknown.
As one who has over the past year observed at close hand the desire and efforts of the (Mennonite community) to restore the children to their families, it seems to me that we are at the critical stage for the survival of this unique community. What government agencies do in the next several months will significantly determine whether the community will be restored or destroyed.
From my vantage point the community and its adult members have undertaken about as many commitments, initiatives, and efforts as they possibly could. Some parents still need some coaching on best practices for nurturing and disciplining their children but it is quite certain that the children would be safe from any mistreatment in their homes at this time and that such coaching would be most effective with the children at home with their parents.
All of the adults of the community have by the consensus committed to observe 18 points presented by CFS regarding its treatment of children, adopted the community's own 10-point community safety plan, and sought advice from a circle of reputable counselors.
The community's leaders have acknowledged the error of excessive discipline applied to children, have discerned the source of the community's failings, and are applying church discipline measures to members who have transgressed by harming others. The leaders have participated constructively in meetings with CFS social workers, with CFS executive leaders, with a set of helpers (psychologists, therapists, and social workers), with local police officers, and with ministers of other churches. The leaders have worked out a Memorandum of Understanding with CFS for collaboration in child protection and reopened dialogue with the Old Order Mennonite churches in Ontario from which the community was estranged. They have familiarized themselves with healing justice processes in First Nations community and requested assistance for conducting a similar process in their community. They have approved the principles and goals of a CFS-sponsored plan for therapy at the individual and family level.
The minister is now distributing pastoral notes on the community's worship services to the children still in CFS custody.
From outside the community, neighbours, therapists, social workers, ministers, education administrators, teachers, former senior civil servants, counselors, parenting mentors, and conflict mediators -- some as individuals and some on behalf institutions -- mostly with Mennonite connections have offered support, advice and assistance. Some advice and assistance has been provided under the current constraints on contacts among community members and with children in CFS custody. More assistance would be available once restrictions on contact would be eased and the children returned to the community.
Now the initiative, as well as power and authority, to act toward restoration resides almost exclusively with CFS and the Justice department. Even the success of the therapy sessions and worry letter conversations will considerably depend on how social workers and therapists conduct them.
To date six children have been returned to 2 of the 10 families, and two children born in the past months have been permitted to remain with their mothers. This leaves 36 children still in CFS foster care. These children will soon irreversibly detach themselves from their parents and their church and community. The financial resources of the community will soon be exhausted from the costs of trips and lawyers. The parents may soon shift from resisting to grieving the loss of their children. That the parents and leaders are maintaining their composure toward outsiders and their unity among themselves is a testament to the basic health and sound values of the community and to their hold on their religious faith.
But without the soon return of the children this community will be destroyed, leaving damaged lives, disrupted livelihoods and incurring social and financial costs for wider society to cover. Whose conscience will bear this?
Jan. 31, 2014
"The community has done an awful lot to move toward the restoration, and now it's important and urgent for CFS, and for that matter, the justice system, to also move toward restoration."
General CFS Authority CEO Jay Rodgers said he can understand the frustration, but progress is being made -- six children have been returned, and more are likely heading home soon.
"We are looking at five more kids, two more families, where we've made considerable progress with them," Rodgers said Wednesday.
By court order, the insular horse-and-buggy Mennonite community, which holds to 19th-century traditions and shuns inventions such as electricity and automobiles, can't be named.
The 36 children remain in care after CFS apprehended them due to allegations a number had been physically abused by adults in the community. An estimated 15 adults have been charged with offences such as assault and assault with a weapon. The offences were allegedly committed between July 2011 and January 2013.
The abuse allegedly included the use of leather straps, whips, boards and cattle prods and deprivation of food and sleep.
The children were apprehended in February and June 2013 and placed with Mennonite caregivers across southern Manitoba.
Community residents said the allegations relate to "extreme discipline," but the Crown alleges abuse was also committed in an attempt to solicit false allegations of sexual abuse.
Rempel, a former executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee of Manitoba, previously sent the letter released Wednesday to Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross, lawyers involved in the case and others.
"I just wanted to impress on them that it's urgent and important to act soon in significant ways," Rempel said, adding he sent the letter on his own initiative.
In the letter, dated Jan. 31, Rempel asks: "Will we fail the Old Order Mennonite community?"
He states the community's adults have admitted the error of excessive discipline and have worked toward changing their ways on raising and disciplining children. The children would be safe at home with them, Rempel writes.
Otherwise, he warns, the children who remain in care will soon "irreversibly detach" themselves from their parents and church.
"It seems to me that we are at a critical stage for the survival of this unique community," Rempel wrote.
"What government agencies do in the next several months will significantly determine whether the community will be restored or destroyed."
-- Brandon Sun