Mennonite community, CFS officials discuss seized children

Leaders with a Manitoba Mennonite community have met with child-welfare officials as they work on having dozens of children returned to their parents.

Officials call meeting with community leaders a starting point

Over 40 children were seized from a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba earlier this year. (CBC)

Leaders with a rural Manitoba Mennonite community met with child-welfare officials on Thursday as they work on reuniting dozens of children with their parents.

The children were removed from the private community by child and family services (CFS) officials after four adults — three men and a woman — were charged with multiple counts of assault, including assault with a weapon.

Court documents allege that the children were assaulted with cattle prods and straps between July 2011 and Jan. 31 of this year.

All but one child was taken from the community and placed in foster care. Since then, their parents have been hoping to have their children returned to them.

A court-ordered publication ban means neither the Mennonite community nor the people charged can be named in order to protect the identities of the alleged victims.

In what CFS officials called a starting point, members of a restoration team that includes child-welfare officials and leaders from the community met on Thursday to discuss how to get the children back.

Community members agree to letter

A CFS letter was sent to the community late last month, listing a number of concerns officials have about returning the children to their parents.

Community leaders have already indicated that the families would agree to a set of conditions, including only spanking children on their buttocks with their hands.

They have also agreed to not leave marks or injuries on the children from disciplining them. As well, children would only be disciplined by their parents, not by teachers or pastors.

Peter Rempel, a member of the restoration team who has been working the Mennonite community for months, said the community's agreement to the conditions was reiterated at Thursday's meeting.

"The leadership of the community declared to CFS … the agreement of the community reached by consensus to the concerns and expectations stated in the letter from CFS," Rempel told CBC News.

Rempel said members of the restoration team will arrange meetings with individual sets of parents to go over the CFS concerns, "both the general ones in the letter, but also ones that are particular to their situation."

Jay Rodgers, the CEO of the General Child and Family Services Authority in Manitoba, said the meetings with individual families will "make sure there's a clear understanding of the meaning of the letter but also how parents take the letter and put it into practice with kids [regarding] appropriate discipline and parenting techniques."

It's expected that the meetings with parents will start in the next couple of weeks, Rempel said.

Meeting with children proposed

Rempel said community leaders and CFS workers also want to meet with the children — without the parents around — for a worship service to explain what's happening.

"In that context the minister would, in very simple terms, tell the gathered children that this is the new direction that they are taking as a community in relation to disciplining children and providing safe homes for them," he explained.

"The children understand that the community works by consensus, and so when the minister speaks he is speaking the sentiment of the whole community, which should have basically a very positive impact on the children."

Rempel said at this point, there is no timeline on when the children would be reunited with their parents.

"This was expressed at the meeting that … neither parents nor children draw the conclusion that, 'Oh, now that these commitments have been made, their return to their homes is immediate and imminent,'" he said.

Process taking too long, says lawyer

Paul Walsh, a lawyer representing 10 of the parents, said the whole process is taking too long.

His clients have some of the youngest children seized, and only one of his 10 clients is facing charges. He thinks the children should be returned immediately.

"It’s a question of time. It’s outrageous that this much time has been taken," said Walsh.

Some of the children were seized in January, while others were seized in June.

"Here we have a situation where a government agency has taken all children, not treating [them] as individuals — all children, regardless of age, situation, complaint from everybody — and that’s not the way we do business in Canada," Walsh said.

Former CFS worker pans handling of case

One former CFS worker and foster parent agrees with Walsh. He’s not happy about how CFS has handled the case.

Henry Dueck is working to help the Mennonite families deal with CFS.

"I like to think [CFS has] the best interests of the children in mind, but I think their cure is worse than the disease," he said.

Dueck said the process is difficult because the parents don’t have much access to their children.

"They’re trying to be compliant. They want more visits. It would be so much better if they’d return the children and then engage with them," said Dueck. "It’s like teaching a nurse to be a nurse without patients."

Right now, Dueck and his wife Hilda are working with the families. Hilda said language difficulties and the passage of time have made the situation emotional and difficult.

"When you see their tears, you can’t help but share their pain," she said.