Jun. 29, 2002. 09:39 AM
Religious family believes in strap
Modern sensibilities conflict with strict values in case about corporal punishment
By Kate Harries
CENTRE OF DEBATE: A family belonging to the Church of God in Aylmer, whose belief in corporal punishment led to the seizure of their children last July by child welfare officials, now face a trial on further intervention.
The names of the family in this story have been changed to protect the children.
ST. THOMAS - As Jan Horsch drove home from work last July 4 the new life his family built in Canada had begun to unravel.
Cruisers and cars were lined up outside, scores of people crowded on to his front lawn. Some were fellow church members, on their knees, praying. Others were strangers to him.
His pastor Henry Hildebrandt emerged from the turmoil. "They are taking your children away," Hildebrandt said.
"It cannot be, it cannot be," Jan cried as he walked through the throng. His youngest child, 6-year-old Rosa, flung herself at him and he put a protective arm around her.
A police officer grabbed her wrist and tried to pull her away, telling Jan he would be arrested if he didn't let go.
"You cannot resist," church members called to him. Jan raised his arms as Rosa clung to him and looked the officer in the eye. "I am not resisting."
In the end, they took all seven children, one by one, four officers to each struggling child.
'Ban lifted at spanking trial'
He got no official explanation that day, but he knew well enough it was because he and his wife believed in old-fashioned discipline, including the strap.
Now there's a trial over a 12-month supervision order being sought by the children's aid society, and opposed by lawyers for the parents and the children.
To date, a publication ban during the trial has prevented the full telling of the story: A fundamentalist Christian family emigrates from Mexico, determined to keep their traditional ways in a modern culture, and crosses paths with a young social worker. The mother and father live in a fog of grief until July 26 when, after they promised not to use corporal punishment, a judge approved the children's return.
But that ban is lifted in part so now the story, as gleaned through testimony, can be told.
It begins with spilt coffee.
Jan had left for work, a table tips and pot of coffee spills, scalding the top of the youngest boy's left leg.
Pieter was in agony and his panicked mother phoned their pastor at the Church of God Restoration for advice. Hildebrandt told her to call another church member, Alfie Tostiga, who promptly came over. She advised Eva to keep it clean with a solution of bottled water to which a touch of bleach and salt was added for disinfection, and then apply a vitamin E cream.
Hildebrandt did not suggest Eva take Pieter to a doctor. "We believe God heals," he testified.
Eva needed Jan's help before she changed Pieter's dressing because the pain made the child difficult to control.
Jan would warn: if the wound wasn't treated it could get infected and would hurt much more. One time, "I told him I would slap him if he didn't hold still and he still didn't listen so I slapped him," Jan said.
While the parents prefer to use a rod, as the Bible suggests, Jan testified he used his hand in this instance because he was afraid an object might have hit the burn.
The family didn't keep Pieter's burn a secret.
Everyone in their church knew about it and so did some neighbours. About a week after the accident, someone made an anonymous phone call to Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin.
Canadian law does not prohibit corporal punishment. The criminal code permits the use of force by way of correction by a teacher, parent or person standing in place of a parent. The force must not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.
But what is reasonable? The code provides no guidance. The Ontario government defines unacceptable modes of punishment as "continual or lengthy beating, shaking, slapping or whipping, hitting with fist, kicking, biting, twisting, dropping, bludgeoning, burning, scalding, poisoning, suffocating, using weapon, etc."
It requires immediate intervention if there's "overdone, unduly prolonged or excessive" use of "generally acceptable" modes of physical punishment. What's acceptable? That's not defined, although the guide requires that the situation be considered at a priority level "whenever a child has received a visible mark, no matter how superficial."
This case is of interest to religious groups, social agencies and families as it will provide guidance as to what corporal punishment by parents is acceptable.
In effect, Madam Justice Eleanor Schnall will decide whether children whose parents use a strap for discipline are in need of protection.
Further, lawyers acting for Jan and Eva claim their constitutional rights regarding privacy and consent were violated by the agency in taking statements from them and from the children.
If she finds in their favour, children's aid societies may face limits on how they can investigate suspected abuse in terms of requiring parental consent prior to interviewing children and obtaining permission to enter property.
The Oct. 19, 2000, anonymous tip about a failure to provide medical attention for a child was handled by Chere Schneider-Campbell, an intake worker with 15 years' experience.
Schneider-Campbell, who now works in St. Thomas at the Thames Valley District School Board, did not testify at the trial. Evidence of her actions was given by Shelley West, the worker who took over her caseload, and by a trainee who was shadowing Schneider-Campbell.
Schneider-Campbell and her shadow Anne Godly arrived unannounced. A visiting nephew translated into Low German because neither parent could speak English.
Jan asked her what she thought of the burns. "I'm not a doctor," she said, telling him that the child should go to the hospital immediately.
As she examined the boy, Schneider-Campbell noticed another mark, on his rear. Jan explained that he had slapped the boy with his hand a day or so earlier because he wouldn't stay still as they tried to change the dressing.
"We have a problem here," Schneider-Campbell told the family. "It's okay," Pieter piped up. "I deserved it because I wouldn't stay still."
First priority, Schneider-Campbell decided, was to get him medical attention. The parents raised no objection.
Pieter was found to have a second-degree burn, but the wound was clean. Late that afternoon, after Pieter was discharged, Schneider-Campbell and Godly returned to the Aylmer home.
Later, with a friend translating, Schneider-Campbell explained the laws of corporal punishment. She did not examine the children or interview them separately.
In November, the pastor Hildebrandt, got a call from a children's aid worker, asking him to obtain a release from the doctor stating that Pieter was healed, so she could close the file. He got it and faxed it to the Family and Children's Services office.
Life returned to normal. Jan and Eva bought a new house, moved in before Christmas. The visit from the children's aid society receded into memory.
Staff changes in Family and Children's Services in early 2001 meant Shelley West, a 27-year-old St. Thomas native with a B.A. in psychology from Brock University, inherits the Horsch file from Schneider-Campbell.
West told the trial she found gaps and inconsistencies in the Horsch file. The process required follow-up regarding the bruise found on Pieter, further consultation with the local police force, separate interviews with all the children and the parents, a safety assessment, a medical assessment and interview.
In addition, while one form stated that the Horsch children were not in need of protection, another form said that they did need protection. The reason for inconsistencies was not explained in court.
West consulted with her supervisor Dawn Clarkson, who had no prior involvement with the Horsch case. Their discussion took place at a time of heightened awareness among agency workers of the activities of the Church of God, after a family fled back to Mexico in March when the agency obtained a supervision order following an investigation of their disciplinary methods.
To follow up, West decided that she would start by interviewing the children privately but testified she got frustrated doing so. The family was going on vacation June 1 — the day West wanted to meet them. She left a business card with the eldest son, 14-year-old Helmut, asking him to give it to the pastor and have him call her.
Eva was perplexed. She had not heard from the agency for almost eight months and Pieter's burn was long healed.
The card got forgotten in the trip to Ohio and Hildebrandt was never informed of West's request.
West felt Hildebrandt's failure to contact her was evidence of a concerted attempt to foil her efforts to see the family.
She decided to drop in unannounced.
Jan was at work. West introduced herself and translator Ellsie Siemens and explained through Siemens that she needed to talk about the incident in October.
Eva said she needed her husband to be present. West asked to make an appointment, and Eva said she could not set a date without consulting her husband. West suggested she call him right then, and Eva said Jan's boss didn't like him receiving calls at work.
West felt frustrated. "My schedule would not permit me to wait until 5 o'clock."
She decided to jump right in with the questions about discipline that were on her mind. Eva at first refused to answer but West was persistent and Eva finally told her, "we do it the way the Bible teaches... with a rod," pointing to a stick in the garden.
`I saw one of the little girls taken out....
The little girl was petrified.'
Witness Ernie Timmons
She told West one of the children had been disciplined just the week before. Then, she testified, she refused to say anything more unless Hildebrandt was there.
At this point, the parents' lawyers claim, the society begins infringing on constitutional rights.
West gave her an hour to get hold of the pastor and left.
In West's mind, Eva's admission that she used objects meant the case was no longer a follow-up, but a new investigation, of possibly the most serious form of abuse.
In addition, West testified Eva's refusal to call her husband at work was evidence of an unwillingness to co-operate.
West reported this to her office and was advised to seek assistance from Aylmer police in interviewing the children. If Eva refused access, she should consider apprehending the children for an interview.
The family was eating lunch when West and Siemens, and Aylmer deputy police chief Andre Reymer rang the doorbell. Eva insisted that Hildebrandt be there before she answered questions. No problem, said Reymer, who paged the pastor.
Hildebrandt arrived within 15 minutes, accompanied by some members of his congregation. West told him that she needed to speak to the children about discipline. Hildebrandt refused, saying he believed the agency was persecuting his congregation because of their religious beliefs.
The tension escalated. Reymer told Hildebrandt that West could obtain a court order.
Hildebrandt replied that the church would resist any order from the courts, but nevertheless was alarmed by the threat. After consulting with Eva, he proposed a compromise: that West examine the girls for marks, and Reymer examine the boys, and that the mother be present.
In his mind, if there were no marks, West would go away.
But for West, a physical examination was just the beginning. She moved to a bedroom inside. With Siemens at her side, and Eva hovering unhappily at the door, she examined each of the three girls. None had any marks.
The girls spoke English well enough and readily told West that their parents used a stick, an electrical cord, or the metal handle of a flyswatter to strike them on their buttocks, over clothing. Sometimes red marks, or "stripes," would be left.
Eva could not understand what the children were telling West. She had not wanted the children to be interviewed but she had no idea how to stop these people.
West called her supervisor, Dawn Clarkson, to report that the children were being disciplined with objects, and that they said marks were left. The two decided that the children should be taken to safety.
Two months into her career as a social worker, West was about to oversee her first child apprehension, of not just one, but seven children, in a situation that was already spiralling out of control as more church members arrived at the home.
Questioned in court by Eva's lawyer Valerie Wise as to whether she should not have pulled back to defuse the situation, and obtain a warrant before proceeding, West said the severity of the allegations against the parents, combined with a concern that the family might flee the country, left her with no option but to act immediately.
Reymer had found no marks on the boys, who talked candidly of being physically disciplined. West informed the police officer of her plan.
With Hildebrandt translating, West confronted Eva with the children's statements. Eva confirmed they had told the truth.
West then told them that the children were to be apprehended, explaining that a court hearing would be held within five days, at which point a judge would decide what would happen to the children.
Hildebrandt made a last-ditch proposal — that the parents promise not to discipline the children.
West told him the offer came too late, the decision had been made. "I did not believe Pastor Hildebrandt was being sincere," she testified.
The noise of screaming children and wailing church members became indescribable and Reymer started to fear for West's safety in the crush of angry people in the house. He got her out and they waited outside with the two other social workers as Reymer called for OPP assistance.
West and Reymer asked Hildebrandt to help calm things down and get the children out quietly. He refused.
Ten extra officers arrived at the same time as Jan. It took them 10 minutes to extract the children from the grasp of church members. "Helmut (the oldest boy) started to resist," Eva said. "I told Helmut, just don't hit. I told him he could resist but he was not supposed to hit."
The nightmarish scene was recorded by Hildebrandt's son Herbert, darting back and forth with his camera, taking photographs that the church would release to the media the next day, propelling the St. Thomas and Elgin agency into the forefront of the public debate on corporal punishment.
Ernie Timmons, a 67-year-old Aylmer restaurant owner and witness, broke down and wiped tears from his eyes while telling how police and children's aid workers "manhandled" the seven children.
"After a short period of time I saw one of the little girls taken out," Timmons said, explaining she was being carried by a police officer and a CAS worker.
"This little girl was hollering `help me,'" he said. "They had their hands full. I would assume they were trying to put her in without her getting hurt. She was struggling and trying to get away. The little girl was petrified."
He added: "There was people taking one of the young boys. He had no shoes on. He was struggling as much as he could to get away. He was manhandled."
Siemens, the translator brought by West, was critical of West in her testimony. She described the apprehension of the children as an "abduction" in a note about the incident, and said West came on too strong and was disrespectful of the culture.
The children's lawyer, Donald Kilpatrick, asked West if there no alternative that could have spared the children such trauma. "I take very little responsibility for causing the trauma," she replied. "Could it have been prevented? Yes."
The children were videotaped in a succession of interviews with police conducted July 7, three days after being split up and placed in foster care.
When it comes to talking about physical discipline, they're matter-of-fact. They call it spanking and they all describe the same scenario: a repeated or wilful act of disobedience and they are taken into a room, and the offence is explained, the discipline administered and then the child is talked to again, and prays with the parent, all in private.
The younger children get hit more often, they explained, because the older ones have learned to obey. But the "spankings" are not a daily, nor even a weekly occurrence. Several couldn't remember the last time it happened, nor why. Correction was most often administered by the mother, but it made her sad. "It looks sometimes, it looks like it is hard for her, but she does it out of love," a girl said.
The father disciplines the older boys, one of whom had a vivid memory of the last time it happened, almost a year earlier.
He had drawn "some bad things," he explained, declining to elaborate because "I would be a little bit ashamed."
His conscience was bothering him so he waited for Jan to come home to confess. They talked for a long time, he said, and then his father asked him if he wanted to be corrected, and the boy agreed that he would.
"I told him I wanted a spank. I didn't first of all, I didn't really want it... but I knew I had done something very bad so I told, okay, I'll be all right if I do, if I get a spank because it will be a remembrance you don't do that stuff."
His father struck him "maybe three times" with an electrical cord, he said. It hurt "very, very much... but not for days, I couldn't even feel it when I woke up."
"And how did you feel when that happened?" Reymer asked.
"I felt good in myself that I wanted to do right from then on and I gave my dad a hug." He explains that he wouldn't expect his father to tap him lightly "because that might never break my will."
The interviewers let the children ask questions. The boy cuts to the chase. "What do you think that is good at the foster home for us?" he asks.
"Are the people there nice? Do you like the lady?" Reymer counters.
"Ya, but... I don't want to go into the world, I want to stay home with our mom and dad."
The boy bursts into tears as he struggles with the intensity of his feelings, and in the courtroom, his parents, who have not viewed any of these videotapes before, weep as they watch their son's spirited challenge to authority.
"I like my mom and dad much better," he cries, "Who is better, these people or the world people?"
"I don't know," Reymer says quietly.
But the boy is just building up steam. He talks of the scanty clothing worn at the foster home — shorts, and short-sleeved tops. "The devil tries to tempt us," he sobs. " `Look at these, it's good here.' I don't want to do that, I don't want to go in the world."
A clearly discomfited Reymer tries to reassure the boy that no one will force him to do anything he doesn't want to. "Everybody believes different things but you believe whatever you want to believe and that is okay."
Then "why don't you just leave us at home?" the boy reiterates. "Why don't you do what the Bible tells?"
The children are charming, spirited but never impolite, answering questions in an unaffected manner that contrasts strangely with the fake jollity of the adults questioning them.
There's no attitude, nor any paralyzing shyness. They laugh, they cry, they're composed, they're confused, they're upset and through it all their demeanour is dignified and secure. They behave like children who know they are loved.
With files from Cal Miller