BRANDON -- About 40 Mennonite children remain in the care of provincial Child and Family Services after a lawyer made an unsuccessful bid to get some of them home.
Paul Walsh argued that the child welfare agency failed to follow the Child and Family Services Act, so the children should be returned to their Old Order Mennonite parents.
"The best place for the 18 children, every last one of the children of my clients — some who are being breast-fed, some who are under two, some of who have health issues — would be best served if they were returned to my clients," Walsh said in a southern Manitoba courtroom on Wednesday.
Walsh represents five of 10 families said to have had children apprehended.
Their names, and the name of their "horse-and-buggy" community, can’t be printed due to a court-ordered publication ban.
The children from the parents represented by Walsh are only 18 of about 40 children who remain in CFS care in the wake of allegations of physical abuse at the Mennonite community.
Walsh, a former CFS lawyer who has worked on child protection cases for 20 years, said this is the only case he’s aware of in Canada in which all the children of an identifiable group have been apprehended en masse.
The need for such a widespread seizure of children is now being questioned.
The mass apprehension of children by CFS is the result of allegations of physical abuse against children from the community of 14 homes clustered within a seven-kilometre radius.
Before the children were removed, the population of the Manitoba community was 80 to 90 people.
Ten adult community members now reportedly face charges of assault and assault with a weapon as a result of an RCMP investigation. At this point, details of the allegations can only be gleaned from court documents.
When the first two men to be charged appeared in court in March it was initially alleged that seven children, aged seven to 14 years, were assaulted.
Two further accused appeared in court last month, raising the number of children alleged to have been assaulted to 13.
It’s alleged that children were assaulted multiple times as a form of "discipline" with such objects as a leather strap, cattle prod, a whip and a board.
Last summer, a number of children started to exhibit "extreme" behaviour. They were defiant and acting inappropriately. It was only later that the adults learned the source of what they believed to be the problem.
A number of children came forward with allegations that they had been sexually abused by their father.
One source said that the allegations of sexual abuse against children were more widespread — it included children from three families, and the accused also included three women.
The Mennonite community tried to handle the matter internally before turning to the RCMP.
Ultimately, though, the accused father denied the allegations and was never charged. Instead, the RCMP investigation led to charges against other community members said to have disciplined the children.
Before the crisis, 53 children lived in the community. The 11 children of the father originally accused of abuse had been staying at the homes of other community members but CFS removed them, returned them to their parents and they now reportedly live in Ontario.
In January and June, the remaining 42 children were apprehended from the community by CFS.
However, a source said one teen ran away from his CFS placement back to his Mennonite home and was allowed to stay.
Another 13-year-old boy also ran away from his placement and remains missing. He’s been in contact with community members but they don’t know where he is.
That leaves only one to two children in the community.
In another twist to the case, two women from the community are said to be on the run. They apparently fled in the belief they were about to be charged.
In court on Wednesday, Walsh made a bid to get 18 of the Mennonite children — nine years old and younger — home.
Eight of their parents were present in the gallery — five men in black jackets and pants, and three women in full-length dresses and white bonnets.
Walsh asked Judge Heather Pullan to dismiss an application by CFS of Central Manitoba for a hearing to determine whether the children are in need of protection.
That hearing could determine temporary or permanent guardianship — whether that’s with the parents, another person, or the agency.
Walsh argued the CFS application failed to meet the standards of the CFS Act, should be declared null and his clients’ children should be returned to their parents.
CFS hadn’t specified the times and conditions for allowing the parents access to their children as required by the act, Walsh said.
Only one set of parents of the five families he represents has had a visit with their children within the last month, he said.
The agency’s lawyer, Chad Schaan, said there was difficulty initially reaching or speaking with some of the parents, but access — at least for parents who haven’t been charged — is supervised on a weekly basis at a home at the community.
"The agency is doing what it can," Schaan said, adding that he’d written to Walsh to inform him of details of access.
Walsh also argued that he hadn’t received proper particulars that outline the grounds being used to show the children are in need of protection.
Schaan said Walsh has been provided with detailed particulars and more are on the way, and argued the application shouldn’t be dismissed.
While Pullan expressed concern with CFS’s application — including concerns about the parents’ access to the children — she said those concerns can be remedied and declined to declare it null.
A further hearing date has been tentatively set for August, but in the meantime the case has been scheduled for later this month to discuss issues surrounding the case.
The 40 Mennonite children in CFS care are said to be living in homes across Manitoba with Mennonites from other communities.
-- Brandon Sun