At least two couples from an Old Order Mennonite community in Manitoba are being reunited with their children, months after all the community's children were seized amid child abuse allegations.
After RCMP charged a total of 13 adults from the conservative community with assault earlier this year, child welfare authorities apprehended about 40 children — including those whose parents were not charged with anything — with some taken in February and the rest in June.
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But on Thursday, one couple was reunited with their four young children. Another couple will have their two children returned to them on Tuesday.
Neither set of parents has been charged with any criminal offence.
The father of the four children who were returned on Thursday told CBC News he's grateful to have them back, and they're happy to be home after being away for five months.
"Wonderful. They all expressed excitement about it. They're very, very happy to be home," he said Friday.
"In fact, they thanked God last night in their prayers that they're home."
At the same time, the father said he feels for the other families in his community who don't have their children back.
"As much as we're overjoyed at having our children home, there's still a real heavy weight in my heart because of the other eight families," he said.
"We feel almost guilty having our children at home now."
The community and its members cannot be named to protect the identities of the children.
34 children still in foster care
Thirty-four other children remain in the care of Manitoba's child welfare system, and the process of reuniting some of those families may not happen quickly.
Part of the reason is that some of the parents in the community do face charges. Some are accused of assaulting children with a cattle prod or a strap, according to court documents.
Community leaders have said the charges stem from disciplinary practices used on some of the children.
"It's important for us to understand how many of the charges will be proceeding to trial," said Jay Rodgers, chief executive officer of the General Child and Family Services Authority (CFS).
"It's difficult to return victims to alleged perpetrators, particularly if some of those victims might be witnesses in the criminal process, so some of that is really creating complexities for planned reunifications."
Rodgers said his agency will start working with two new families to have their children returned to them.
One couple who doesn't face any charges say they hope to be the next to be reunited with their children.
"I'm happy for the ones that are coming home, but I'm very disappointed that they don't recognize what our children are going through," said the mother.
"As adults we can reason it out [and] count our days or months, but the children, they can't figure that out," her husband added.
Agency 'holding back children,' says lawyer
Paul Walsh, who represents the couple and four others in family court, says while some of his clients are facing charges, he still believes the CFS agency is not working fast enough to bring families back together.
"They're just saying that they don't know even the details of the criminal charges," he said.
"I'm angry about it because they don't know what they don't know, but they're holding back children on the basis of that uncertainty. It's highly objectionable."
One couple is still waiting to hear what will happen to their two boys, aged one and 3½, and they're frustrated they aren't getting any closer to having their sons home.
"Last night I couldn't sleep well because of this system with people with authority and responsibility — they're taking lots of time, lots of paperwork, lots of conversation but … if we take too much time, it might be too late for children," the father said.
"If someone is bleeding to death, you have to take immediate measures even if they're not the best measures."
His wife faces one charge of assault in a case that does not involve her own children, while the father faces no charges.
Community committed to change
All the families in the community have already committed to changing their disciplinary practices.
As well, they are taking parenting courses to learn how to comply with current societal norms and Manitoba law.
This past summer, all adult members agreed to 18 provisions outlined in a letter sent to the community's leadership by CFS.
One provision requires parents not to allow anyone else in the community to discipline their children.
The parents also had to "commit to spanking children only with their hands on their butts" and can only use physical punishment on children aged two to 12.
The parents also had to agree not to "pinch, pull hair, sit on, slap faces, pull or pinch ears, burn, withhold food or have children sit or stand for long periods of time as punishment/correction."
In the meantime, social workers will continue to monitor the children who have been returned to their parents, visiting the families almost weekly to ensure they are safe and well cared for.