Teary-eyed child asked to go home
Videotaped interviews shown in court
Thursday, June 06, 2002
ST. THOMAS, Ont. - Just three days earlier, the darling boy with the serious small face and his six siblings had been wrenched from their fundamentalist Christian home in the nearby town of Aylmer by a local children's aid society and abruptly deposited into foster care.
Now, the 11-year-old was being grilled at a police station by Aylmer's deputy police chief and a society social worker about his parents' spanking practices.
For about 20 minutes, literally sitting on the edge of his chair, he answered their questions bravely and politely, often turning to an interpreter present at the station for help in understanding them; she would translate the words into the "low German" dialect which is the first language of Church of God Restoration and the boy's family both. Then the deputy chief told him it was his turn, invited him to ask questions himself, and the little guy's admirable resolve utterly dissolved: He bowed his sleek head, burst into tears and begged for his world to be righted.
This video was played, along with similar taped interviews conducted with the boy's brothers and sisters, in a tiny courtroom here yesterday at a child-protection hearing that will determine whether the seven youngsters are in need of protection by the society.
As on a single television screen at the front of the courtroom, the boy wept -- and, remarkably, even vigorously defended his beliefs in the presence of these three adults who were virtual strangers to him -- his dignified mom and dad, sitting in the front row, battled, and lost, the fight to maintain their composure. His mother sobbed openly, and his father's eyes filled with tears.
Because of a sweeping publication ban imposed on the proceedings last week by Madam Justice Eleanor Schnall of the Ontario Court, detailed reporting of all testimony in the case is prohibited.
But in a general way, it can be said that the boy was in anguish toward the end of the interview, fearful of the worldly temptations in the foster home and desperate for the comfort and guidance of his parents. Yet always, even at his most distressed, his love and regard for his mom and dad, and a fierce allegiance to their teachings, shone through. His was the most moving of the seven interviews, and he was the most clearly upset of the children, who were then aged six to 14.
But he was not alone in asking to go home -- the 12-year-old girl did too -- and his biggest brother, the 14 year old was obviously also unsettled by the influences to which the children were being exposed in foster care.
All the children but the very youngest, a cutie-pie of a six-year-old girl who appeared a little timid and a cheerful little boy of eight who at one point politely clarified a question the deputy chief had framed awkwardly, had at least one query for their questioners when their turns came.
The little girl, clad in a long grey jumper and white blouse, was dwarfed in the chair and swung her legs in the air throughout her interview. Within the confines of the restrictive publication ban -- much broader than the usual prohibition on identifying the involved children or their parents by name -- it is difficult to accurately capture the children's complex and engaging natures.
They were all unfailingly courteous, even, in the dire circumstances in which they found themselves, graceful. They appeared healthy, confident, attractive and bright, though some were more comfortable in English than others. As is so often the case, it was the youngest who had best mastered their new language -- this family, as with others in the Church of God community here, had come to Canada only two years before from Mexico, long a refuge for traditional Mennonites, from whose ranks the Aylmer Church of God members often spring.
All the children, however, even two of the older boys who spoke English so haltingly as to virtually stutter on occasion, tried first to communicate on their own before turning to the interpreter for assistance. They are a patently proud lot. All appeared unusually devout, and most mentioned the Bible directly. One volunteered a touching childish version of one of the Bible's best-known stories. All seemed younger than their ages, and spoke of their innocent pleasures -- the oldest talked at length and with pride he tried desperately against feeling of his hobby -- with a touching sweetness.
Their cultural references were utterly devoid of such modern features as television, the Internet, chatrooms, music videos and shopping malls. Not one of them ended every sentence on the interrogative note with which so many mainstream youngsters routinely speak; one boy struggled, whether because he didn't know the English word or because he didn't have a word in any language for it, to describe a cassette deck. Neither did any of them pepper their conversation with the use of "like" or "whatever".
Yet neither did it seem that their cloistered world is dull or uninteresting for them. They spoke of toys such as bicycles, and games such as soccer, and the fun of helping their mom around the house. It was also clear that, as might be expected with such a brood, they squabbled and rough-housed among themselves, like siblings everywhere.
The agency, Child and Family Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County, is seeking a year-long supervision order that would allow the youngsters to remain at home but see its workers keep close tabs on the family. The children, through the lawyer appointed for them by the provincial Office of the Children's Lawyer, an arm of the Ontario government, oppose the society order and want to live with their parents unmonitored by social workers.
They were seized by workers from the society last July 4 after an emotional and highly publicized conflagration that saw police reinforcements called in when Church of God congregants showed up at the family's home to pray for and support the children's mother.
The youngsters were literally torn, media stories of the day reported, from congregants' arms.
They remained in foster care for about three weeks before being returned to their parents' care after they agreed, a deal they ultimately renounced months later in a press release, to temporarily refrain from administering corporal punishment until the matter was resolved at this hearing. All the children were interviewed on the same day, July 7. It was the height of early summer, yet not a one of the youngsters wore shorts or T-shirts. Those who sported sandals wore white socks under them; those who didn't wore sober black shoes or running shoes.
The girls wore the Church's requisite uniform of full-length skirts and vests and high-collared, long-sleeved shirts; their hair was gathered off their faces in long ponytails. The boys were each in long pants, neat long-sleeved sports shirts buttoned to the neck.
And yet they did not appear confined by these garments, or by their religiosity. The little girls giggled; the boys were feisty. The best metaphor for them is the shirt the oldest boy wore: He must have been growing like a weed, for the sleeves on it stopped rather short of his wrists, and he appeared to be on the verge of bursting out of it.
It was at the behest of the lawyers for their parents that the sweeping publication ban was originally sought, and acceded to by Justice Schnall. The underlying rationale for it was that publicity would cause the youngsters emotional harm; the logical inference was that this hearing would be regaled with stories about their alleged maltreatment. How ironic that the greatest loss is that Canadians cannot learn, in detail, of their collective splendour.
© Copyright 2002 National Post