A pair of Old Order Mennonite sisters have been sentenced for their parts in a plot to thwart the efforts of Child and Family Services to keep children in protective care.
The Crown says they were involved in a plan to encourage children to run away from their foster placements to keep them away from CFS and police.
"The plan, it seems really, was to just break the back of CFS by encouraging them to run away persistently until CFS would simply give up," Crown attorney Rich Lonstrup said in a western Manitoba court on Tuesday. "We know that didn’t happen, and thankfully so."
Neither the women, nor their home community, can be named due to a publication ban.
Their case is linked to Crown allegations that children of a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community were subjected to long-term "systemic" abuse at the hands of parents and high-ranking elders, often with their parents’ approval.
It’s alleged that children were spanked, kicked, strapped and shocked with a cattle prod and made to stand still for long periods.
As a result, in February and June of last year, CFS apprehended all of 42 children from the community and placed them with Mennonite caregivers across southern Manitoba.
Assault charges were laid against 15 adults from the community, assaults allegedly committed between July 2011 and January 2103.
The two women sentenced on Tuesday, aged 24 and 22 years, were among those accused of inflicting abuse on community children.
One was accused of assaulting two girls — one of those girls multiple times. Her sister was accused of strapping and assaulting four girls.
However, those charges were also dropped on Tuesday, and so they were never proven.
Rather, the women were sentenced for their role in what the Crown describes as a plan within the Mennonite community to interfere with children in care.
Originally, both were charged with abduction, forcible confinement and obstruction of justice, but those charges were also stayed.
In the end, each pleaded guilty to one count under the Child and Family Services Act for interfering with five children in care.
In describing the following account, Lonstrup added a layer of intrigue to an already unusual case.
On May 26, 2013, the sisters’ brother and sister went missing from their foster placement near a southern Manitoba town.
They were found the next day more than 200 kilometres away, back in their home community.
It’s alleged they were taken by a man who is the co-accused of the sisters, a man said to have been a friend to the insular Mennonite community.
Lonstrup said it appears the adults who took the children knew they would be found and returned to care, but the plan was to take them away again to foil CFS.
There was also an attempt by one of the sisters to lure away two girls, 11 and 14 years old, from their placement on a farm hundreds of kilometres away from their home community. Initially, the girls agreed to run away but changed their minds.
Another boy also went missing from his foster placement within the Old Order Mennonite community on May 26-27, 2013.
Police spoke to members in the community who said they didn’t know where he was or how he’d left.
"We now know, virtually down to a man, that they were lying and openly misleading police in this regard," Lonstrup said.
Police ultimately learned that the sisters, and the man accused of being their accomplice, were staying at a secret location.
Then, in August 2013, it was revealed that the elder Mennonite sister had married the man, who was 72 years old at the time — even though she was betrothed to another man in the Old Order Mennonite community.
Lonstrup said community members were suddenly co-operative with police who found the man, the sisters and the missing boy at a rural home in Saskatchewan in the RM of Wallace on Sept. 4. The man and the sisters were arrested.
The boy has since told police that he was previously abused by members of the Mennonite community, Lonstrup said.
Defence lawyer Bob Harrison said the sisters had acted under pressure from elders or others in the community, and Lonstrup agreed.
"Really, we say this was a community-wide effort and these two were the ones tasked with carrying out the dirty work," Lonstrup said.
Based on the lawyers’ recommendations, Judge Donovan Dvorak sentenced each woman with an 18-month suspended sentence with 60 hours of community service work.
Court heard that the sisters spent seven days in jail prior to being released on a bail order that forbid them from attending the horse-and-buggy Mennonite community, which shuns the use of modern technology such as TV and cars. They’ve been staying in Winkler with "helpers" of the community.
The ban from attending the Mennonite community is now lifted, but Harrison said the women don’t intend to return. They’ve worked to upgrade their Grade 8 education and taken computer and word-processing courses.
They plan to eventually move in with the elder sister’s husband, although he currently still faces charges and is to have no contact with members or former members of the Mennonite community.
Meanwhile, the community has been working with CFS and, as of early April, about a dozen children had returned home.
Charges against seven accused have been dropped as the Crown focuses its case on four men.
One woman has pleaded guilty to assault charges and will be sentenced at a later date.
» Twitter: @IanHitchen