IAN HITCHEN/BRANDON SUN
A swing set stands empty outside the one-room schoolhouse at a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community. Child and Family Services apprehended the community’s children due to allegations of physical abuse related to discipline.
Residents of a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community, which has had its children apprehended over allegations of physical abuse, look forward to being with their children again some day — and they say they’re willing to work toward that goal with authorities.
Residents fear they’ll permanently lose their sons and daughters.
But General Child and Family Services Authority CEO Jay Rodgers says the goal of reuniting the children with their parents remains.
"In situations like this, it’s always our hope that we can reunify these kids with their families at some point," Rodgers said.
About 40 community children remain in CFS care, while 13 adult community members face charges said to be related to allegations of extreme discipline.
RCMP have released little information due to the ongoing investigation, so only a glimpse into the allegations is available via court documents.
So far, it’s alleged that at least 13 children were assaulted multiple times from July 2011 to January 2013. Some were allegedly assaulted with objects such as a leather strap, cattle prod, whip and board.
An early report placed the age range of at least some of the children between seven and 14 years.
Residents and their community can’t be identified due to a court-imposed publication ban.
All but one of the children is now in CFS care. The ages of the removed children ranges from eight months to 17 years.
Details of where the apprehended children are living haven’t been released, but community members believe about a dozen are in a home at their community with Mennonites from another community.
The rest are believed to be living in communities across the province with other Mennonites, although one is reportedly staying with non-Mennonite caregivers.
There’s no word yet as to when, or if, the children will return home.
Rodgers said community leaders need to work with CFS to ensure that the children will be safe before they can go home.
That seems to be something residents are willing to do.
"We do want to be law-abiding," the community’s minister said in a recent interview. "We are willing to take parenting courses and we are willing to have counselors with credentials come in our community and we want to cooperate with that."
"We want to learn what is acceptable, and what is not."
The Brandon Sun recently went to the community to hear the residents’ side of the story.
Judging by their account of events, which follows, trust will be an issue that needs to be overcome as the case has revived a years-old dispute with another Mennonite community.
Residents say that allegations of what’s been described as extreme discipline stem from an effort to deal with a crisis in the deeply religious community where The New Testament lies at the core of their beliefs.
In the summer of 2011, they say, a number of children started to exhibit extreme behaviour. There was lying, extreme defiance and entrenched "impure thoughts and actions" or sexual inappropriateness.
They were sent to other homes for instruction in what was right or wrong according to scripture.
The allegations of assault surrounding discipline stem from this time, residents say.
Community members say it was only later that they learned of what they believed to be the root cause of the childrens’ troubling behaviour.
In August 2012, children stepped forward with accusations of sexual abuse. In particular, there was an allegation that some children had been sexually abused by their father.
Elders and adult community members tried to handle the sex abuse allegations internally, according to their belief that it’s the duty of their church to "maintain purity."
However, residents say the accused father denied the abuse and resurrected a years-old dispute as he sought support.
He turned to an orthodox southern Ontario Mennonite community which the Manitoba group had been "disfellowshipped" from about six years ago.
The reason for the split isn’t clear — possible explanations range from disagreements over the use of technology, group autonomy or child discipline. There’s also been reference to previous transgressions by a man who remains a member of the Manitoba group.
About 11 families made a fresh start in Manitoba where they say affordable land was available and their children could one day have farms of their own.
However, bitterness remained between the Manitoba and southern Ontario communities.
In January of this year, the man accused of the sexual abuse returned with ministers from the southern Ontario community and demanded the return of his children who’d been placed in various homes on the Manitoba community.
Unwilling to hand children over to a man they believed to be an abuser, residents of the Manitoba community say they turned to the RCMP.
RCMP and CFS investigated, but the man was never charged. Instead, other adults were charged over the allegations of extreme discipline.
Community members say they had already decided to refrain from the use of objects in physical discipline months before the charges were laid, about the time of a previous inquiry made by RCMP.
Residents said they believed the matter was settled, and are surprised charges have been laid.
The Manitoba Mennonites fear that this investigation into the discipline is being driven by members of the southern community.
Ultimately, they worry that their community will fail over the assault allegations, they’ll lose their children permanently and they’ll be sent to southern Ontario, and their properties will be taken over by the southern Ontario Mennonites.
Their concerns have been heightened by some of the placements for their children — they say some have been put with Mennonites who have travelled to Manitoba from the southern community.
One resident said his children were temporarily housed with the man who was originally accused of the sexual abuse. That man has reportedly since had his own children returned to him and they live in southern Ontario.
The Manitoba Old Order Mennonites suspect CFS of working with the southern Ontario Mennonites.
Rodgers says he’s willing to discuss the community’s worries.
"I think I’d like the opportunity to address that with the community who has those fears," Rodgers said. "I’d like to be able to reassure them that our hope is to get these kids reunified."
In the meantime, residents await the day their close-knit community can be reunited.
"It is our hope that we can live in peace and quiet as we are taught and be respectful to our government and that we could work in harmony with CFS," the minister said.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 15, 2013