UPDATE: The required process of home visits and sleepovers has begun for two families in the Old Order Mennonite community. Yesterday the children of one family were returned home for good, and another family has been told their children will be returned on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Child and Family Services changed the wording of the condition that stated children could not attend church if someone who has been charged will be in attendance. The families and their lawyers objected claiming the court process could go on for years and prohibiting the children from attending church would be detrimental to their community. CFS has now changed the wording putting the onus on the person charged rather than on the parents for keeping their children away. --Evelyn Rempel Petkau
The empty swings sway idly in the breeze. A sandbox is overgrown with weeds. Toys are clustered in the corners of homes, undisturbed. The sounds of children playing are only a distant memory for parents and grandparents in a small Mennonite church community in rural Manitoba that eschews modern technology. Their population was cut by nearly half when all the children were taken into custody between February and June of this year. The children’s beds upstairs, neatly made with pieced quilts, have remained empty for months. There is a deep sadness that overwhelms the parents as they enter their boys’ bedroom and recall the day in June when they were taken from them.
Almost every home has a story of incomprehensible sadness and pain. One grandfather’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke about his 9 grandchildren, “They [Child and Family Services (CFS)] came in with their vehicles and when they loaded up the girls the boys came and wanted Grandma to tell them the Joseph story before they came back to pick them up. Joseph also had to go to a strange country.”
Very few parents and grandparents were able to say goodbye to their children. One couple observed from their home that children were being taken from the school one February morning but didn’t learn from CFS until after dark that it was their five children who were taken. The school never reopened after that day because the children were too traumatized to return.
Fifteen more children were removed from their homes in February. Later in June the remaining 19 children were taken away. Life has gone on but there is a pall of emptiness, despair, and frustration that hangs over the community as it struggles to understand and to comply with every demand in an effort to have their children returned.
Thirteen adults in the community face charges of child abuse. A court publication ban prevents identification of the children and no allegations have been proven in court. Before calling in authorities almost a year ago, the leadership had tried to manage the behaviour problems of some children without success. “At the time I was expecting that a little more firm discipline would correct the behavior. I regret now the way some of these things were dealt with,” said one community leader. “We got too desperate in dealing with the problem. Today I regret and have apologized to some of these children. We were following the teachings. It was a new experience to meet up with these behaviours. If we would have only asked for help sooner to deal with these behaviours.”
Four community leaders recently met with media in the empty one-room schoolhouse to answer questions. In late July, Child and Family Services presented a letter to the leadership outlining 18 conditions that need to be understood and followed by the community before any children can be returned. The letter outlined how parents can and cannot discipline their children. That letter was circulated and agreed to by all the families.
The community has taken an active role in the hopes of bringing restoration to their community. After the first group of children was apprehended “we have been trying to correct our discipline methods. We have invited in MCC and they have provided parenting courses which we are taking,” said the minister. They sought the assistance of Peter Rempel, former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba. They became part of a restoration group that includes Eden Health Care Services professionals. They have participated in two parenting workshops and are planning on having more.
“The community is working at various ways of being a safe community for its children,” said Rempel. In addition to accepting the conditions imposed on them by CFS, the community has drawn up their own proposal for making their community safe for their children. They are committing themselves to ongoing parenting courses, drawing in professionals to have individual conversations with each parent couple about specific concerns. They have outlined the contacts and resources they will use in an ongoing way to assist their church leadership, the schoolteacher, youth and young adults on forming relationships within families and between genders. They will obtain counselling resources for the children as they adjust to moving back home and for those who face criminal charges.
At a court ruling on October 4, “We were told if we commit to three points that the agency (CFS) outlined we will have our children returned. Now (Oct.10) we received a letter with 14 more conditions to meet. We feel very betrayed,” said a community spokesperson. “We have not signed it because there is a point that states we cannot take our children to church as long as there is a member of the community who has criminal charges.”
“We would be willing to do almost anything that doesn’t violate our beliefs or our lifestyle commitments but we were really looking forward to taking them back to church because our children are the future church. There is no church without the next generation. We will lose our identity if we cannot worship together.”
The community feels it is being squeezed tighter and tighter, being asked to give up what is at the core of their beliefs in order to have their children returned. “The part that confused me the most was we thought we were conforming to the demands of CFS after the first group of children were taken but later on all these children were taken. If we knew we had to conform more we would have conformed more.”
Several families had their children removed in June. None of these parents had any charges laid against them at the time although two parents have since been charged, but the charges are not related to their own children. The families were not given any reason at the time but were sent a letter later on stating “the situation was still under investigation and the agency has reason to believe that we might place our children in the care of another adult who may abuse them,” said a parent.
“I believe that the concern regarding the discipline issue in our community could have been dealt with without taking the children. Restoration lies at the very core of our beliefs. Whoever did wrong, whatever the error, we believe in restoration and restoration always brings healing,” said a leader. He expressed appreciation for the assistance of Peter Rempel, Lois Edmund and other Mennonite professionals who have helped to form a restoration team. “That is our goal and ties in very much with how we believe. The part that is always hard on us is when restoration is always hindered. If the wrong is recognized and commitment is made to what is right and movement towards that, that is restoration.”
On that week of October 11, hopes of having their children returned were shaken again. How can they choose between their children and their faith, they questioned. Their faith sustains them, said the community leaders. They take one day at a time and live with the promise that they will not be asked to carry more than what God will help them to carry.
Old Order Mennonite community in turmoil (July 8, 2013)
Old Order parents asked to take parenting course by MCC Manitoba (Aug. 9, 2013)
Efforts continue to reunite Old Order families (Dec 24, 2013)
Survival of Old Order community at ‘a critical stage’ (March 3, 2014)
New school greets returning children (July 28, 2014)