Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mennonite kids close to going home

CFS gives parents discipline rules

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Some of the dozens of children who were taken from an Old Order Mennonite colony in rural Manitoba months ago amid allegations of child abuse could be returned by Child and Family Services officials within three or four weeks at the earliest, a lawyer for several families said.

However, the lawyer did not rule out legal action being taken against CFS for "a mass intervention" that's "going to be found maybe inappropriate and very wrong" in some cases.

Paul Walsh, who represents five families -- involving children between the ages of two and nine years old -- said the agency is ill-equipped to seize, process and foster up to 40 children in one swoop, including one child who was still being breastfed.

"There's no agency protocol for this," Walsh told the Free Press Wednesday. "They had to be inelegant about it. They had to make it up as they went."

Asked if there may be future legal action taken by family members against the agency, Walsh replied that grounds for such possible litigation would be determined on a "family-by-family, child-by-child" basis.

"In some cases, the answer would be yes," he said. "In some cases the answer would be no. They have to be judged on their own merits."

'There's no agency protocol for this.They had to be inelegant about it. They had to make it up as they went'

-- lawyer Paul Walsh

Walsh added any legal ramifications might clash with the community's orthodox beliefs. "They might not want to do it (sue)," he said.

CFS officials and the families continue to work toward the return of the children to the community.

CFS drafted a list of 18 concerns that was presented to three community leaders in late July. The letter allows parents to spank children "only with their hands on their butts." Parents cannot "use objects to discipline children" and cannot "leave marks or injuries on children as a result of discipline."

In the letter, obtained by the CBC, CFS told parents they "will not pinch, pull hair, sit on, slap faces, pull/pinch ears, burn, withhold food, or have children stand or sit for extended periods of time as punishment/correction."

Peter Rempel, the former executive director of the Manitoba Mennonite Central Committee, who was present at the July meeting, said he believes there will be no deterrents to reaching an agreement with CFS officials. "The church leaders thought it was a positive step forward. I don't think there are really any sticking points."

Rempel noted one adjustment with the rule of law that "you shall not use physical punishment of any kind on children under two and over 12 years old."

"That was a new piece they heard in what is legally binding," Rempel said.

Community leaders were to inform the parents of the CFS letter and concerns. The next meeting for the parties is scheduled for Aug. 15.

Rempel said it's up to CFS officials to determine if their concerns are understood and will be followed.

"They have to make sure parents have bought into this," he said. "Now the community knows very clearly what is expected."

"I hesitate to speculate (on when the children might return)," Rempel added. "I think there's going to be a priority on getting infants back, the youngest, as soon as possible. But it's in the CFS control."

Walsh said he believes the situation could be resolved in three or four weeks. "I have every reason to believe the leadership will agree," he said. "Then the process of returning the children can start. It will happen one family at a time, which is fine."

Christy Holnbeck, senior manager for General Child and Family Services in Manitoba, said the letter is part of a "collaborative strategy" designed to be "culturally sensitive" to community members.

"It's kind of a springboard to the next step, which is working with individual families to talk about safety concerns for their children," Holnbeck said.

When asked about the children's return, Holnbeck replied: "It's difficult to give a concrete time frame."

The Free Press has learned that in an attempt to lessen the cultural shock of being taken from the community, the CFS "imported" Old Order Mennonites from Ontario to foster some of the children, who never left the rural setting. But those foster parents were from the community the Manitoba Mennonites left almost a decade ago after a split involving the use of new technology such as cellphones. The Manitoba sect -- who travel in horse buggies and raise modest crops to generate income -- wanted to eschew such electronic devices.

Within weeks, the Manitoba families urged the CFS to find new foster parents, which they did, Rempel said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2013 A4

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