June 5, 2002
Video of son brings mother to tears at child welfare hearing
Church of God youngsters appear bright, healthy
ST. THOMAS, Ont. - The mother of seven youngsters abruptly seized by a local children's aid society last summer wept softly as a videotaped interview with one of them was played in court here yesterday.
As the 24-minute tape began, the mother -- dressed in an ankle-length grey flannel skirt and matching vest and long-sleeved, high-necked white blouse -- took one look at the face of her handsome son upon the lone television screen in the small courtroom, flushed bright pink and began to cry.
She discreetly dabbed at her eyes with a tissue until the video was finished.
The interview was conducted for Child and Family Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County just three days after the agency's social workers had moved in last July 4 and, with the aid of police officers, literally wrenched the youngsters from their fundamentalist Christian home and the arms of congregants who had rushed to their mother's side.
The boy spoke good English, though his parents, like other Church members, are more fluent and comfortable in the "low German" dialect that is their first language and which they have in common with the large traditional Mennonite community in this part of southwestern Ontario.
Only once or twice in the interview did he search for an English word and turn to an interpreter for help; his parents, on the other hand, each sit beside a translator in court.
The lad appeared shy, polite and unusually devout for a 12-year-old, but several times also broke into an endearing grin, and when the interview concluded, he waved goodbye to the camera.
The tape forms part of the evidence at the child-protection hearing that began here 10 days ago before Madam Justice Eleanor Schnall of the Ontario Court.
The St. Thomas society is seeking to have the boy and his six siblings, aged six to 15, declared in need of protection and placed under a year-long supervision order. But the children, through their lawyer appointed by the provincial Office of the Child Lawyer, contest the application and want to remain with their parents unmonitored by society workers.
Because of the sweeping publication ban placed upon the proceedings by the judge when the hearing began last week -- a gag order now under appeal by six major media organizations including the National Post and slated to be heard in Superior Court in London, Ont. on June 28 -- detailed reporting of testimony and evidence in the case is prohibited.
In a general way, however, it can be said that the videotape merely added to a picture that has been steadily developing here of the children as bright, healthy youngsters who, if arguably indoctrinated in the dogma of their parents' Church, the Church of God Restoration in the nearby town of Aylmer, are also assured enough of their beliefs to have remained true to them even after being taken from their home and put in foster care for three weeks.
Indeed, it could fairly be said that it appears the central disagreement here -- over what sort of corporal punishment is appropriate for children, with the society, like other child welfare agencies, long on the public record as being opposed in principle to spanking and the Church of God on record as in principle subscribing to it -- may be as much a theoretical or philosophical question as a practical concern for the welfare of these particular seven children.
In this regard, it may be instructive to note that one of the documents that allegedly informs the Church's direction to members on spanking, and which has been mentioned at the hearing but not made an exhibit, is a book called Mommy, Daddy, We Would See Jesus! and subtitled "Training Our Children for the Glory of God."
The London Free Press, the local newspaper that has led the media investigation into the sect and uncovered at sister congregations in Manitoba, Mexico and California the suspicious deaths of children who were allegedly the victims of their parents' failure to seek medical treatment, obtained a copy of the book last summer.
Among the controversial suggestions the paper reported then was the advice, by author Theresa Storts, that infants as young as "six or seven months" may begin exhibiting what she describes as "carnality."
And at this tender age, by "refusing to lie still for a diaper change" or "screaming in protest when you take something away from him or lay him down," or by biting his nursing mother, the child is "resisting authority" and has "reached the correcting stage," she tells parents.
Ms. Storts, who identifies herself in the book only as a "church of God" member, not as a member of the Church of God Restoration, says this is when parents should begin using the two most critical training words -- "No" and "No."
"When a little pain is administered as these words are spoken, they become a powerful training advocate inflicting "some pain on his chubby little leg or sweet little hand" by the mother "tapping the baby's cheek with her finger" or by, as the child grows older, the judicious use of such instruments as "a little switch".
As The Free Press reported last year, the local children's aid society was aware of the book, and its alleged role in Church doctrine, before the seven youngsters were temporarily apprehended.
The Post has also obtained a copy of the 190-page volume, and while some of the author's advice, excerpted selectively, undoubtedly lands shocking upon ears accustomed to mainstream child-rearing wisdom, in totality, the book is also imbued with a reverence for the sensitive nature of young people and the overriding need for parents to act responsibly and kindly.
Ms. Storts repeatedly warns parents that the spirit of a young child is easily wounded, urges them to lavish a youngster with affection and praise and to be cautious of embarrassing or humiliating him in public, breaching his privacy or failing to respect him.
"In our efforts to teach our children to be full of courage to overcome adversity," she says, "let us not teach them to also be hard and uncaring."
She beseeches parents to be transparent in their actions, to carefully explain the reason for any discipline, and to not only punish children for poor behavior, but also reward them for that which is good.
She goes on at some length even about the need for tenderness "when we awaken our children from sleep. Sitting or kneeling beside them for a few moments in the mornings, speaking comforting words and gently rubbing their backs starts their day off with feelings of love and closeness.
"If we are too rushed to ever find time to awaken them in this way, we should trying getting up earlier!" she says.
"Parents," she writes, "must make some sacrifices for their children."
Ms. Storts' is an old-fashioned, perhaps even archaic, view of the family, and her book, chock-a-block with Biblical references and religious poetry both, is not for everyone.
But, as at this child-protection hearing, as with that shy but lovely child on videotape yesterday, there is both less and more to it than appears at first blush.
Christie Blatchford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org