May 31, 2002
The grit of the children of the Church of God
Youngsters were resilient after being yanked from homes
ST. THOMAS, Ont. - The father of arguably the seven most famous anonymous youngsters in the country sat quietly in a courtroom here yesterday, blinking back tears, as a social worker described in detail the day last summer his offspring were abruptly seized by a local children's aid society.
The apprehension of the children, who were wrenched sobbing from their home by local police officers and society staff, made national headlines and newscasts at the time, with the child-welfare agency harshly criticized by officials of the family's fundamentalist Christian church as a heavy-handed agent of the state.
Indeed, the society's conduct, and whether its employees trampled over the family's Charter rights to security of the person and against unreasonable detention and questioning, is a key issue at the hearing.
But yesterday, these significant constitutional questions took a back seat to the clear emotional wallop of the worker's evidence.
The children's soft-spoken parents were in evident distress as, through the young worker's testimony, they appeared to be reliving the painful afternoon last July 4 when the world as they knew it fell utterly apart.
The parents sat in the front row, as they have since the hearing began earlier this week, each with an interpreter whispering in one ear, translating the worker's words into the "low German" dialect that is the first language for the family, and for many members of their Church of God Restoration in the nearby town of Aylmer.
Low German, according to a recent publication of the local health unit here, is a verbal language -- there is no written form -- that is a combination of Dutch, German and Russian-Prussian. It is commonly used not only by Church of God members, but also by the large Mennonite population living in southwestern Ontario. The publication estimates that at any given time, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Mennonites living in this part of the province, and the 1996 Canadian census shows that almost a quarter of the population in East Elgin County, which includes Aylmer, claim the language as their native tongue.
As the father fiercely strained not to weep yesterday, his nose periodically reddening with the effort, his wife -- as always dressed in the uniform of long full skirt and matching vest over high-necked, long-sleeved blouse that the women of the church wear, her hair in the requisite tight bun at the back of her finely shaped head -- twisted her hands in her lap, her face, which is both plain and pretty, occasionally flushing.
As is routine in child-protection hearings such as this one, which is being held to determine if the children are in need of protection or supervision by society workers, neither the youngsters nor their parents can be identified.
What is unusual is that the social worker's evidence about her decision to apprehend the children cannot be reported due to a sweeping publication ban imposed on the proceedings this week by Ontario Court Justice Eleanor Schnall.
The terms of the ban allow the media to report only the barest details of the case -- the profession of each witness and a brief description of the issue about which he or she testifies -- and Judge Schnall said she invoked it to protect the children from "emotional harm" that might be caused by reading, seeing or hearing descriptions of the evidence.
Yet, as became startlingly clear yesterday, it is the youngsters, who were then aged six to 15, who emerge as the shining lights in this sad story.
In a general way, and despite the oft-sterile language used by the social worker yesterday, it is apparent that these children were not only the hapless innocents of the sorry piece, but also that they displayed, in these most dreadful and stressful circumstances, the magnificent resilience so typical of the young, and were able to quickly bounce back, and find their feet even as they were forcibly yanked from the very bosom of their family and, as has long been in the public domain, temporarily taken into foster care.
Were they, in short, able to read about themselves through the evidence at this hearing -- and that in itself is highly unlikely, for, as a former church member told the National Post in an interview this week, Church of God children lead highly cloistered and controlled lives, attend a church school adjacent to the church proper in Aylmer, and that they would be exposed to the mass media is improbable -- the picture of themselves they would find painted is that of a group of bright and engaging young people who behaved with astonishing grit.
The judge, in delivering her rationale for imposing the ban earlier this week, brandished as evidence of the emotional harm she predicted would be inflicted upon the children if normal media coverage was allowed a recent edition of the London Free Press, which on Monday featured a story about the hearing beginning.
This story, written by the paper's fine reporter Jonathan Sher, made reference to a Free Press investigation last summer, which uncovered suspicious deaths of children -- allegedly the result of a failure to seek medical treatment, an issue that lawyers here have said also played a minor role in this case -- at other Church of God congregations in such diverse places as Manitoba, Mexico and California.
Judge Schnall, holding up a copy of the newspaper, had wondered aloud if the seven children, reading that story, wouldn't worry "that they may die because of something their parents are or aren't doing." She said she could "think of no more compelling an argument" for a publication ban than such a story.
And yet, at least in this early going of the worker's testimony, it appears that the bond between parents and their brood is a strong, affectionate and enduring one. The parents are also emerging as decent and good people, albeit arguably under the thumb of the powerful pastor of their church.
The social worker was just 27 and only two months into her first full-time job as a child-protection worker at the Child and Family Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County when she became involved with the sprawling family.
She delivered her evidence-in-chief with remarkable poise and frequent reference to the vast array of regulations, forms, laws and provincial assessment tools that govern so much of the modern social worker's professional life and occupy so much of her time.
She will be cross-examined by lawyers for the parents today.
Christie Blatchford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org