A swing set stands empty outside a home at a Manitoba Mennonite community after children were seized by CFS last June.
It has been nearly one year since Child and Family Services launched the first of two waves of apprehensions that would see all the children from a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community taken into care.
And, with about three dozen children still in foster care, that community has now reached a "critical" point in its effort to survive, says Peter Rempel, who has served as adviser to the Mennonites.
Discouraged with the lack of progress toward returning children to their homes, Rempel released an open letter on 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 the reaction he hoped his letter would receive.
"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 any 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 on Wednesday.
By law, the insular "horse and buggy" Mennonite community — which has traditions in the 19th century and shuns the use of such technologies as electricity and automobiles — can’t be named.
Thirty-six children remain in care after CFS apprehended all of the community’s children over allegations that a number had been physically abused by adult residents.
An estimated 15 adults have been charged with such offences 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 waves — in February and June of 2013 — and placed with Mennonite caregivers across southern Manitoba.
All community children were apprehended, although Rempel notes there were four families in which neither parent was charged.
Residents of the community said the allegations relate to "extreme discipline," but the Crown has also alleged that abuse was committed in an attempt to solicit false allegations of sexual abuse.
Six children have since been returned to two families at the community — to parents who weren’t charged — while two recently born children have been permitted to remain with their mothers. A boy who previously ran away from his foster placement also remains.
However, an estimated 36 children are in foster homes. Parents see their children during weekly visits away from their community.
On Wednesday, Rempel — a former executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee of Manitoba who has been advising the Mennonite community in a personal capacity — released a letter.
He’d previously sent the letter to Manitoba ministers Andrew Swan (Justice) and Kerri Irvin-Ross (Family Services), 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, stressing that he sent the letter on his own initiative and not at the request of Mennonite leaders.
In the letter dated Jan. 31, Rempel asks: "Will we fail the Old Order Mennonite community?"
He states that adults of the community have admitted the error of excessive discipline, and have worked toward changing their ways when it comes to raising and disciplining children. The children would be safe back home with their parents, 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."
In an interview on Wednesday, Rempel questioned whether the community can survive in its traditional state.
He said he gets the sense that the children in care are distancing themselves from their home community, and he’s concerned that they’re getting accustomed to a lifestyle in foster homes that is very different from their own.
He expects they’ve been exposed to motor vehicles and houses with electricity, plumbed running water, Internet access and media.
They’re also likely forming bonds with new friends and foster parents, while the relationships with their own parents may be strained.
This may make it hard for children to adjust when they return home, Rempel predicted, and community members have asked themselves what traditions they’ll have to change due to the exposure their children have had to the outside world.
Rodgers said the progress in returning children depends, at least in part, on a need for the criminal charges against the adults to be resolved.
He said child welfare leaders and leaders of the Mennonite community have also made progress. A memo of understanding has been reached, which includes protocols intended to ensure the well-being of children into the future.
Will we fail the Old Order Mennonite community
The following is an open letter Peter Rempel released regarding Child and Family Services’ apprehension of children from a Manitoba 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 (CFS). 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 re-opened 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?
January 31, 2014
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 6, 2014