Church of God family's custody trial opens today
by Jonathan Sher
A year after Aylmer's Church of God clashed with police and social workers over allegations of beatings and medical neglect, the custody of seven siblings will be resolved at a trial that begins today.
A St. Thomas courtroom will be the setting for a drama that thrust the apocalyptic church onto the world stage.
The Aylmer church and its 200 members were virtually unknown outside that community until July 4. That's when congregants descended on a home where social workers were removing seven children. Police helped drag the children away, a scene whose images were broadcast across the continent.
Since then, The Free Press has uncovered questionable deaths of children at sister churches in Manitoba, California and Mexico and a book that instructs parents to beat children as young as six months with a rod.
California police are probing a second death, this one of an eight-year-old who didn't receive medical treatment after his appendix burst.
The Aylmer children, who can't be named by court order, went home July 26 after their parents agreed not to strike or medically neglect them until the dispute with Family and Children Services ended.
Resolution is expected at a trial that may last two weeks. A family court judge will decide if the children need protection and, if so, whether to remove them from their home or take less intrusive measures, such as monitoring.
The Aylmer family was one of three in the church to be investigated by Family and Children Services -- the other two fled. Also fleeing, though only temporarily, were all the women and children of the church, who took refuge last summer with a sister congregation in Indiana.
Aylmer's church is the largest in a movement that splintered off from what was itself a splinter of the Church of God. Its members dress like traditional Mennonites and practise faith-healing.
Church leaders say they are victims of religious persecution and an overzealous provincial agency. They say they only encourage followers to turn to faith, not doctors, when illness strikes.
But ex-members tell a different story, charging those who even talk of going to a doctor are shunned and risk the wrath of the church's spiritual leader, Danny Layne.
A former Aylmer couple have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and cruelty to a child in California after they failed to seek medical care for their toddler, who, according to a coroner, died of meningitis and medical neglect. Rick and Agnes Wiebe -- whose parents still live in Aylmer -- could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has also reopened a 13-year-old homicide investigation, department sources say.
Ryan Kissling, 8, died days after his appendix ruptured, according to a San Bernardino County coroner's report. Ryan's mother, Diana Kissling, is secretary for Layne and the Church of God.
An alleged lack of medical care also prompted workers to probe the Aylmer family whose trial begins today. One of their children was badly scalded and not taken to a doctor, authorities say.
But that issue was often overshadowed in the media by the parents' insistence on the use of corporal punishment.
Late last year, the church and the parents, denounced the court order that forbade them to strike their children. Family Services sought to silence Aylmer pastor Henry Hildebrandt before the two sides agreed to a truce barring either from speaking of the case to the media.
July 4, 2001 -- Police and social workers confront dozens of people from the Church of God at an Aylmer home before dragging out seven children. The seizure ends an investigation that began when one of the children was scalded but not taken for medical care.
July 9 -- A St. Thomas court orders the Aylmer children to remain in foster care.
July 11 -- Another Aylmer family is questioned by social workers, the third to come under scrutiny. The families later flee the country and haven't returned.
July 13-14 -- Women and children of the church flee to a sister church in Indiana, staying there until summer's end.
July 26 -- A court allows the seven Aylmer children to return home after the parents promise not to strike them or medically neglect them until the court matter is resolved.
August -- The Free Press obtains a guide used by the church that instructs parents to beat infants as young as six months with a rod. The guide was also examined by Family and Children Services.
Dec. 4 -- Aylmer pastor Henry Hildebrandt announces the church won't encourage the Aylmer family to comply with the July court order.
Dec. 7 -- The Aylmer family announces it will defy the court order.
Dec. 14 -- Family and Children's Services asks a court to restrain Hildebrandt from telling the Aylmer couple to strike their seven children.
Dec. 20 -- A court refused to intervene between Hildebrandt and his followers but orders all parties to refrain from speaking to the media.
March, 2002 -- The Free Press learns deaths of children at sister churches in California, Manitoba and Mexico may be raised as an issue at the Aylmer trial.
May 27 -- A trial begins today that will determine custody of seven Aylmer children.
Comment from individual acquainted with the Aylmer Church of God
Jonathan Sher is trying so hard to get the "medical neglect" part into the issue of corporal punishment.
He is referring to the case where one of the children of the Aylmer family got burned on the leg when hot water spilled. The burn was immediately taken care of by somebody that had experience with burns.
The CAS received a call from somebody regarding the burn. When the CAS came to their door and inquired about the burn, the family explained that it was taken care of. They insisted on seeing it. Once they saw it, they said the child had to see a specialist. The family asked their pastor what he would advise them to do. They followed his advice to take their child to a specialist immediately.
The specialist looked at it and said it looked good. He said it didn't need further treatment. They went back a few times and he said it healed well.
This is what Jonathan calls "medical neglect".