Mennonite community regrets harshly disciplining children

In a broadcast exclusive, CBC News was invited to a Manitoba Mennonite community which has been without its children since they were apprehended months ago amid allegations of child abuse.

'We want to do what is proper,' community minister tells CBC News

From the highway, it looks like any other farming community in rural Manitoba: a cluster of well-kept homes with brightly painted shutters, perfectly manicured gardens and children's swings swaying empty in the yard.

But as you get a little closer, it soon becomes clear that the people of this small conservative Mennonite community are living in a different world, one that dates back decades in time.

The women wear long dresses and bonnets. The men dress mostly in black with long beards and wide-brimmed hats.  Most telling is the transportation — horse-drawn buggies instead of cars.

But there is also something else different about the people living in this community. All their children are gone.

"The first while, you seem to bump into memories of the children everywhere, and it was overwhelming," says one woman.

"Now, you're kind of used to it, that they aren't here. But you still want them very much."

All the children in the community — about 40 of them — were seized by Child and Family Services, some in February and the rest in June.

Thirteen adults were charged with offences, some accused of assaulting children with a cattle prod and a strap. Community leaders have said the charges stem from disciplinary practices used on some of the children.

Despite the sensational nature of the charges, officials with Child and Family Services have been working with community members to return the children, provided they are prepared to change their ways. And the community members have signalled their willingness to work with CFS and do what ever it takes to get their children back.

In support of those goals, adult community members took the unusual step of inviting CBC News into their community and homes to talk about the case and their commitment to change.

"We do want to do what is proper," the community's minister said in an interview. "And we also want to be law-abiding."

The minister, along with all others in the Mennonite community, cannot be named to protect the identity of the children.

'We had some serious problems'

According to the minister, the community's ordeal can be traced back to events that started a few years ago. Members began noticing what they deemed to be "abnormal behaviour" by some school-age children.

When it didn't stop, the children were placed in the homes of other families for disciplinary purposes, a common practice among people in this community.

At that point, corporal punishment was used to try and correct the behaviour.

"There was some disciplining done at that time which today, looking back, we feel we should've done it different," said the minister.

"We are a community that depends on helping each other. We had some serious problems."

Eventually, some community members came to believe that sexual abuse — by one particular member of the community who has since moved away — was the root cause of the bad behaviour being exhibited by some of the children in the community.

Fearing the children were at risk, the minister asked the RCMP to investigate.

But the minister said when the RCMP investigated, they could find no evidence of sexual abuse and no charges have been laid.

Instead, officials focused in on the corporal punishment being used by some adults on some children.

"They then dismissed our allegations, but they put the emphasis on our discipline," the minister said.

Shortly after the investigation started, so did the apprehensions. The children were seized and the community members were charged.

Working to correct discipline methods

Since that time, community members have been working to correct discipline methods, in an effort to meet modern standards and law.

"The MCC has provided us with parenting courses, which we are taking," said the minister, referring to the Mennonite Central Committee. "We have been working with counsellors."

All the community's members have also agreed to 18 provisions outlined in a letter sent to the leadership by CFS this past summer.

One provision requires parents to let outside professionals in to assess the ongoing safety of the children. Another states that parents will not allow anyone else in the community to discipline their children.

The parents 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."

Jay Rodgers, chief executive officer of the General Child and Family Services Authority, told CBC News that CFS has been working to understand the community's traditional beliefs and culture, while explaining what's acceptable in the punishment of children.

He expects six children will be returned to two families within next couple of weeks.

"The process that we put in place for this to happen has been working reasonably well," said Rodgers.

"We have tried to work in very close collaboration with the community and outside helpers who are bridging some of the relationships between our agency and the community."

'They would like to come back,' says mom

However, he can't give a specific timeline for when the rest of the children will be returned, particularly if a parent is facing criminal charges.

That's the case for a mother of two whose young boys were taken into CFS care in June. She faces one count of assault involving a child who was not hers and was not living in her home.

The woman says she worries the charge is undermining efforts to have her children returned. For now, she and her husband are allowed to visit their children one hour a week.

"You can see it in our sons' faces when we go to visit them, that they would like to come back," she said.

"They want to just come home with us. We want to give them that, but we can't."

Her husband says he fears the children will become more and more attached to their foster parents.

"They're telling me I've got excellent visits," said the man.

"They are very happy with our relationship between the children and us, so I think that should have a bearing, too, on what happens from here on. But they can tell us it's wonderful and excellent, but it doesn't seem to help anything."

In the meantime, the two continue to hope they will be next on the list to have their children back.