A case in which dozens of Old Order Mennonite children were apprehended from their Manitoba community over allegations of abuse has taken a dramatic twist.
Two Mennonite women who went on the run and a Manitoba man, described as a friend of the community, stand accused of abduction after being found with a teen who ran away from his foster placement.
Crown attorney Rich Lonstrup said the allegations stem from a bigger plan by the accused to undermine the abuse case and force Child and Family Services to return the children to their parents.
“There is clearly an effort here to interfere with the children in care,” Lonstrup told Brandon provincial court on Monday during a bail hearing for one of the accused.
The accused, and the Mennonite community involved, can’t be named in order to protect the identity of the children in the ongoing abuse case.
The two women, aged 24 and 22, and the 72-year-old man appeared in a southern Manitoba courtroom in custody on Monday. The women remain in custody pending their next court appearance on Thursday, and the man was granted bail and given a next court date of Sept. 23.
Each is charged with abduction, forcible confinement, obstructing justice and an offence under the Child and Family Services Act. The women also face assault charges in relation to the initial abuse allegations.
During the man’s bail hearing, Lonstrup outlined allegations that formed a tale of intrigue and betrayal. He also shared previously unreleased details of the investigation that led to the mass apprehension of the Mennonite children by CFS.
“What you are going to hear is information suggesting, amongst (the accused), a very concerted effort to interfere with the Crown’s ability to prosecute its case, to have access to certain witnesses, and certainly an interference with children who were duly and appropriately in the care of Child and Family Services,” Lonstrup alleged.
He described how police first began an investigation in the summer of 2012 into allegations of widespread sexual abuse at the Old Order Mennonite Community. The allegations surrounded a number of children and their parents.
However, Lonstrup said police, based on interviews with the children and physical examinations, determined that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded.
But, during that investigation, it was discovered that many of the adults in the community had used physical abuse to solicit false allegations of sexual abuse from the children. The physical abuse included the use of leather straps, whips, boards and cattle prods, Lonstrup said. Children were also deprived of food and sleep.
The scope of the abuse involved almost every family in the community. As a result, CFS apprehended every child under the age of 18.
Community members told the Brandon Sun that the children, who numbered around 40, were seized between January and June.
CFS is considered the legal guardian of the children, Lonstrup pointed out in court.
The man now accused of abduction and obstruction is not a member of the Mennonite community. However, he was considered a trusted friend of the Mennonites and he began to assert himself as a representative of the community.
He provided a home to two of the Mennonite men who were later charged in connection with the alleged abuse when they were released on bail orders that forbid them from being at the community.
Lonstrup said the man was previously warned by CFS about interfering with the children in care.
On Jan. 21, one of the girls said to have been abused and subsequently apprehended went missing from her foster home at the Old Order Mennonite community.
Some of the children were placed at a home in the community with Mennonites from elsewhere, residents have said.
Police investigated and the girl was returned by the man who said he’d driven her to Winnipeg to see a lawyer. He wasn’t charged.
Then, on May 26, two other children went missing from their foster placements near Winkler. They were found at the Mennonite community the next day and said they ran away from their foster home and were driven back to their community by the man. Again, it appears no charges were laid.
The man’s charges solely relate to a 13-year-old boy who went missing from his foster placement at the Mennonite community on May 26-27.
The teen’s father told police that his son had returned home that night, but he told the boy to go back to his foster home. However, the father only walked the boy part of the way, and the youth didn’t return to his foster placement. The teen left a letter in a chicken coop. In the letter, he apologized to his father and said he “just could not go back” to his foster home, Lonstrup said.
Ultimately, he was found in a home near Yorkton, Sask., on Thursday with the fugitive Mennonite women.
On June 16-21, police arrested Mennonite adults accused of physical abuse and, at last report, their number totalled 13. However, two of the women accused of physical abuse couldn’t be found at the time, and Manitoba-wide arrest warrants were issued.
Those women were arrested at the Saskatchewan home along with the co-accused man who rented the residence.
Also at the home was a newborn whose presence adds another turn to the story.
Lonstrup said it was learned that a pregnant woman from the Manitoba Mennonite community had gone to Saskatchewan out of fear that CFS would apprehend her baby once it was born.
Her baby girl was born in a Yorkton hospital on July 10 and given the last name of the accused man, allegedly at his suggestion as a way to prevent CFS from finding the child.
Lonstrup said that the new mother later said she wanted to return to her Manitoba Mennonite home, but was lied to by the man who claimed lawyers advised against it. It’s alleged that he told the same lie to the teenage boy when he expressed a desire to return to the community.
The mother did later return home on the pretext of paying a visit, but the newborn was left behind in the care of the fugitive women.
Lonstrup said it appears there was a plan by the man and the two women to encourage the Mennonite children to run away from their foster placements in an effort to force CFS to return the children to their parents.
No evidence was presented at the hearing to indicate that the remaining members of the Manitoba Mennonite community or their leaders were part of any plan.
In another footnote to the case, court heard how one of the fugitive Mennonite women had written her fiancé back home to tell him she no longer wanted to be with him — she wanted to marry the co-accused man instead.
Court was told that the 24-year-old woman and 72-year-old man have since wed.
“The community was in shock as they’d considered (the man) to have been a friend, and they had no idea that he had taken (the boy and three women) out of the province,” Lonstrup told court.
All of the above allegations have not been proven in court.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 10, 2013