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Mennonite community needs kids back: adviser

A member of the Old Order Mennonite community drives his horse-drawn buggy from his yard.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

A member of the Old Order Mennonite community drives his horse-drawn buggy from his yard.

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 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

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