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Mennonite community in crisis over child abuse allegations

A swing set stands empty outside a home at a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community. Child and Family Services has apprehended the community's children due to allegations of physical abuse related to discipline.

IAN HITCHEN/ BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

A swing set stands empty outside a home at a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community. Child and Family Services has apprehended the community's children due to allegations of physical abuse related to discipline.

Near the highway — easily missed by many of the drivers in cars and semis that speed past — stands a clean white house.

The classroom at an Old Order Mennonite community remains empty.

Enlarge Image

The classroom at an Old Order Mennonite community remains empty. (IAN HITCHEN/ BRANDON SUN)

At the end of the gravel driveway is posted a white sign with the words "Eggs" and "Potatoes" neatly hand-painted in black.

And in the farmyard, two brown horses in harnesses stand near a black buggy carriage.

A young woman in a long, dark blue dress — her hair tucked up under a black kerchief — emerges from a nearby workshop, scurries into the house and comes out a couple of minutes later.

"He’ll be out shortly," she says with a slight Germanic accent.

Within minutes, a man in black pants with suspenders, a dark blue shirt and a broad-brimmed straw hat exits the home.

A beard stretches across his chin from ear to ear.

He offers a friendly "hello" and a handshake, but just six months ago this Old Order Mennonite man wouldn’t have talked to a reporter — never mind offered to be a spokesman and guide for his Manitoba community.

Now, he says, he feels forced to speak as his community with traditions based in the 19th century has been thrust into the modern world and faces a crisis that has fractured it, and threatens to destroy it.

"We’re in the courts, we’re in the papers, we’re in the news," the man says.

"We don’t like it. We don’t want it that way, but what can we do about it?"

The residents and their community can’t be named due to a court-ordered publication ban.

Near the man’s home stands a faded orange swing set. Usually, his young children would be playing on the swings. Instead, they hang empty and sway lightly in the breeze.

His four young children are among about 40 who remain in Child and Family Services care after the agency apprehended all of the community’s children amid allegations of physical abuse.

This man isn’t charged, but 13 other adult community members have been in relation to an investigation into "extreme" discipline against community children.

Police and justice officials have released few details, citing the ongoing investigation.

However, court documents for four accused allege that at least 13 children were assaulted multiple times from July 2011 to January 2013. Some with a number of objects such as a leather strap, cattle prod, a whip and a board.

Two accused were released on orders to live elsewhere, but eight others were released to live at the community on orders not to have contact or communication with certain other residents.

Another three women are said to be on the run.

With the children gone and no-contact orders that effectively leave the community struggling to function, the resident says his close-knit community is in danger.

"We’re at risk, we’re at severe risk, and how long will this community survive?" he wonders aloud.

In total, including the children, 80 to 90 people usually live in 14 farm homes clustered within a four-mile radius.

They live a simple life according to Old Order Mennonite traditions and the core of their beliefs, The New Testament.

They wear traditional clothing in a style based on conservative beliefs that date from the 19th century — bearded men wear long pants with suspenders and long-sleeved shirts, and the women wear long dresses and bonnets.

The children wear similar traditional clothing even from a young age.

The community shuns the use of automobiles and electricity, and travel by horse and buggy between farms and to nearby towns for supplies.

There’s one phone that’s shared for business and emergencies.

The community is largely self-sufficient as gardens and cattle farms allow residents to do their own canning and butchering.

But there is some interaction with the outside world. Neighbours stop at the farms to buy eggs or potatoes, for example, or at workshops on the various properties that make goods such as furniture, horse-drawn buggies, ready-to-move homes and bee boxes.

Mainly, however, the Mennonites keep to themselves and live in the belief that their community church can handle its own affairs internally.

But it couldn’t — and now the children are gone.

Residents say CFS workers, escorted by RCMP, took the children from 10 families between January and June. The children are aged eight months to 17 years. Nursing children and a child with Down syndrome were among those taken, residents say.

Due to the ongoing investigation, CFS officials say they can’t supply specifics but the agency has worked to ensure "culturally sensitive" placements.

"In a situation like this, we would make every effort to find the most culturally appropriate family-like situations we can and I think we’ve been pretty successful at that," said General Child and Family Services Authority CEO Jay Rodgers.

Some children are believed to be close to home. About a dozen children are believed to be living in a home at the community with Mennonites from southern Ontario. Others are believed to be in homes across the province with Mennonites of other communities.

One child ran away from his CFS placement back to his home and has been allowed to remain. He’s believed to be the only child who remains with his parents.

During a tour of the community’s white homes and green fields, not a child can be seen.

The field where they often play baseball is empty, as is the one-room school that was closed in February after children from one family were apprehended from there.

"That traumatized everybody enough that we closed the school," the Mennonite guide says.

Despite the allegations of abuse, residents say they love their children and their absence has left a "void" and "sorrow and grief."

"Words can really not describe how much the hearts are bleeding," the community’s minister says. "We are a group that does not show much outward emotion, but our hearts are bleeding."

Residents say not all of those who had their children taken have been charged, although the investigation continues.

"Seeing them, holding them, playing with them. That’s what we miss most," the guide says of his children. "What’s hardest on us is we don’t know how they’re doing and how they’re coping."

According to the CFS agency’s lawyer, parents — the ones who haven’t been charged, at least — are permitted to visit their children weekly.

But the Mennonite man who has agreed to serve as guide says he hasn’t seen his four children, aged two to six, in about a month and he’s not the only one.

His first supervised one-hour visit was scheduled for earlier this week.

He said he intended to make good use of the time — by bringing the children peanut butter cookies made by their mother and telling them how much their parents care about them.

Otherwise, he wasn’t certain where his children are.

"They’re torn out of your arms and you see them go," he said.

"Now you don’t know where they are. You don’t know how they’re feeling, how they’re coping. Do they cry themselves to sleep? Are they happy where they are? It’s that sense of having failed your children, that’s the hardest."

He said his children cried when they were taken and he wonders what the emotional impact will be for children separated from their parents.

Their first language is Pennsylvania Dutch and they don’t speak English until they’re school-aged, so younger kids may not understand what is going on.

The foster parents may be Mennonite, but not necessarily all are Old Order Mennonite and they may not speak the same German dialect as the children.

The caregivers may not necessarily have the same conservative traditions, and residents wonder whether their sons and daughters are being exposed to things they consider harmful.

Are they watching TV? Who are they making friends with? Are they wearing modern clothes?

One man says he has had some visits with his children and they’ve proven to be emotional.

"They wanted to come home. They cry, we sing together and they get tears when they sing songs," he says.

Residents say the children’s absence has also disrupted day-to-day life. When they aren’t at the single-room schoolhouse, the children help on the farm, in the home and in workshops.

The boys, who can drive horse and wagon teams by the time they’re nine years old, can usually be seen in the fields loading hay used to feed cattle. With haying time approaching, it’s not clear who will drive the teams.

Girls help their mothers in the garden and in the home, with the baking and sewing.

The court proceedings have also taken a toll financially.

Residents say the accused released to live back at the community are under court orders not to communicate or have contact with each other except for worship.

During a stop at one farm, a man says the orders amount to "religious persecution." They interfere in their church’s role in daily decision-making and its directive that residents are to support each other. While a minister and deacon are considered elders, residents say major decisions for the community are made as a group.

And while there’s an exception to the no-contact and communication orders to allow adults to worship, there’s to be no visiting.

The orders also prevent haying and other work from getting done.

They’ve proven a hurdle for a major project in which residents have been working together to build the roof of a neighbour’s barn.

Then there are the time-consuming court appearances and meetings with lawyers that take adults away from the community.

At this point, there’s no indication of how long the children will be gone or whether those charged will ultimately wind up in jail.

The community’s future is in doubt.

"With God all things are possible, we don’t know what He has in mind here, so we feel that the community is threatened," one man says.

But the guide says his community is already fractured under the strain of the no-contact orders.

"A community needs to speak to each other, they need to talk, they need to reason, they need to discuss and that’s being totally blown apart."

Meanwhile, he says, he and his wife read scripture and pray to cope with the absence of their children.

When he speaks of the possibility of the children returning someday, a smile appears above his beard.

"I don’t know when that day is, but if those children could be back in this community, that would be lots of cause for rejoicing," he says.

» ihitchen@brandonsun.com

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 6, 2013

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Near the highway — easily missed by many of the drivers in cars and semis that speed past — stands a clean white house.

At the end of the gravel driveway is posted a white sign with the words "Eggs" and "Potatoes" neatly hand-painted in black.

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Near the highway — easily missed by many of the drivers in cars and semis that speed past — stands a clean white house.

At the end of the gravel driveway is posted a white sign with the words "Eggs" and "Potatoes" neatly hand-painted in black.

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