Second family probed for spanking
Church of God followers told CBC they used 'objects'
Thursday, July 11, 2002
Photo - The London Free Press
Reverend Henry Hildebrandt says his Church of God Restoration congregation, in Aylmer, Ont., is shaken by the news a family was summoned to children's aid headquarters last night, the second to be investigated.
The children's aid society of St. Thomas, Ont., has descended upon another fundamentalist Christian family from the nearby town of Aylmer.
The parents from this family, who appeared on a recent CBC-TV show to discuss the use of "objects" in disciplining their five children, were summoned to a meeting last night at the children's aid headquarters.
The move comes as a controversial child-protection hearing involving another family from the same church -- the Aylmer branch of the Church of God Restoration -- is on a short recess before resuming for two days next week.
Steve Bailey, the executive director of Child and Family Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County, told the National Post yesterday that the parents' televised remarks about using "belts and sticks" in spanking their youngsters constitute "disclosures" and that they were "sufficient to start a child-protection investigation."
He characterized the meeting last night as "more than a discussion about corporal punishment."
The action has unnerved the 200-member Church of God community, its pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, said yesterday.
But he was guardedly optimistic after the meeting and said agency officials were more reasonable than he had feared they might be, and that they had agreed to slow down the protection investigation such that the parents will have time to decide whether they want legal representation at further meetings, and whether those meetings should be recorded.
All the women and children from the church temporarily fled Canada last year shortly after the seven children of the family now involved in the court hearing were wrenched from their home, wailing and struggling, and temporarily placed in foster care.
At the centre of that "warrantless apprehension," as the youngsters' seizure is properly called, was the same issue that has sparked the children's aid to action in this case -- the parents' use of objects in discipline and the church's adamant insistence that its congregants have both the right, under Canadian law, and the obligation, according to the Bible, to discipline their children in such a manner.
The Church of God, as Reverend Hildebrandt has testified at the court hearing, believes that the hand should be reserved for love, and that corporal discipline with the Biblical rod or its reasonable facsimiles is properly part of a parent's repertoire in child-rearing.
While his congregants' practices do not on their face contravene the existing criminal law -- Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, recently upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal, allows parents to use reasonable force with their children for "the purposes of correction" -- they arguably run afoul of the provincial Child and Family Services Act and are certainly contrary to both the policies of almost all child-welfare agencies in the country and the zero-tolerance philosophy that informs them.
The provincial legislation, while not explicitly prohibiting the use of objects in spanking, defines physical harm broadly enough that spanking with a belt arguably falls within it, especially if marks of any kind are left.
As well, the "Risk Assessment Tool," considered the social-work bible and used across Ontario by workers on the front lines of the child-protection field, similarly deems spanking with objects inherently harmful if it leaves the child with marks or bruises.
In the CBC show, which was aired nationally shortly after a Superior Court judge late last month lifted a sweeping publication ban upon the protection hearing involving the first family, both parents and children of the second family were interviewed about discipline in the home.
The parents were clear that they only ever spanked their children "with love" and as a last resort, that they used a leather strap, and the children appeared to understand that though a spanking might hurt, it was for an age-old purpose -- what mothers and fathers in other times would have called "their own good."
Lawyers for the family involved in the ongoing court hearing are arguing that the parents' Charter rights to security of the person and against unreasonable search and seizure were trampled by the way the agency and its worker, Shelley West, swept in on July 4, 2001 -- insisting upon entry to the house before the father came home from work, interviewing and physically examining the youngsters, and then abruptly deciding, even after Ms. West had ascertained the children were entirely unmarked, to apprehend them.
Valerie Wise, who represents the pretty mother in the case, told Judge Eleanor Schnall that there are certain limits imposed on the police in criminal matters, so should there be comparable limits upon social workers in civil proceedings: An agent of the state, Ms. Wise said in effect, is an agent of the state, regardless of whether she is in police uniform or not, and the boot of the state should be subject to checks and balances.
Judge Schnall, who is slated to hear next week from children's aid lawyer Alfred Mamo on the Charter issues, has first to decide the constitutional question and how much of the evidence obtained that July day should be admissible against the parents.
In the balance hangs the way this family will be able to live their lives.
As with many of the Aylmer Church of God members, the parents are so-called "Mexican Mennonites," who, when they came to Canada for a better life just three years ago, joined the small church which is based on the outskirts of town and headed by Rev. Hildebrandt.
Their first language is the low German dialect, also common to Mennonites, and they are modest and devout people, if also usually good and law-abiding citizens.
The children's aid is seeking to have the seven children deemed to be in need of protection, a finding that would see the family subject to a year-long supervision order by agency workers and subject to unannounced visits to the home.
The youngsters were in temporary foster care for only about three weeks, but the court has heard considerable evidence that the experience was devastating and traumatic for them. Some of them briefly stopped eating, and several were concerned that exposure to such modern temptations as television and a houseful of people with bare arms would lead them astray, and to the devil.
The second family is slated to meet children's aid officials again later this week.
© Copyright 2002 National Post