When the spanking gets out of hand
By MARGARET WENTE
Saturday, July 13, 2002
On July 4, the CBC's National television newscast aired an interview with a family that belongs to the Church of God, a tiny fundamentalist group that lives in the small Ontario town of Aylmer. In it, the parents and their children discussed the inflammatory issue that has embroiled their members in a long-running dispute with the local child-protection authorities. The issue is how they discipline their children.
The mother, a sincere woman in her late 30s wearing a modest skirt, explained to the reporter that, from time to time, they spank their children with a small leather strap, in accordance with their interpretation of the Bible. "It's very hard for me. I've told the children and I've sometimes cried with the children when I did it and told them it's, it hurts me a lot more than it does the children."
"Spanking isn't like something they do often," said one of the five children, a polite boy of 13. "It just happens once in a while. There's other forms of discipline."
"And do they talk to you after?" asked the reporter.
"A bit," said another son.
"And what do they, what do you talk about?"
"That they still love us the same much as they did before they did it. . . . They don't want us to go into the river of fire."
On Tuesday, five days after the story aired, the children's mother got a call from a child-protection worker who said they needed to talk to her about what they'd seen on television. The parents were told that their remarks amounted to "disclosures" that were sufficient to launch an investigation, and were summoned to a meeting. At the end of it, they were told that, though their children are not deemed to be in "immediate danger," there is "potential risk of harm."
The couple are now officially suspected of child abuse.
I spent time with this same family a few weeks ago. I met their kids, who were outgoing, relaxed and cheerful, and I wrote a sympathetic story about them. The parents, who can no longer by law be named, did not have anything to hide. They told the CBC the same things they had told me. Now they're being punished for it.
"You can no longer stand up in Canada and publicly declare what you believe," says Henry Hildebrandt, who, as pastor, has been trying to mediate between his community and officials at Child and Family Services. "If you do, you are liable to be investigated."
A year ago, seven children from another Aylmer family were literally carried from their home by police because they were also disciplined in such a manner. The person who ordered the home invasion was an inexperienced social worker named Shelley West. She had never met the family, and it was her first apprehension. Before she had the children dragged away, she had them physically examined for marks and bruises. There were none.
The children were sent home after three weeks in custody. But now the child-protection agency has gone to court to seek the right to supervise the family for a year, because the parents won't promise to give up the rod.
Are these parents breaking the law? That's unclear. The Criminal Code does not ban spanking. It does permit "reasonable force." Does that include a leather strap, a stick or the wire end of a flyswatter applied a few times to a clothed bottom? The law doesn't say.
But the social workers' Bible does. They believe any corporal punishment is child abuse. Their operating manual is quite specifically opposed to "objects." Because of the objects, Ms. West rated this case as "extremely severe," and judged the children to be in imminent danger of further harm. The manual clearly prescribes the correct course of action: immediate removal to a safe place.
After the children were seized, each of them was interviewed on video by a social worker and a police officer about the discipline practices in their home. The evidence on the tapes is damning. There's no doubt the children have been traumatized -- by the social workers.
All of them want to go home. They are deeply distressed at being separated, and dismayed by the foster home where they've been sent. The people there are not mean. But they wear indecent clothes -- shorts and short-sleeved shirts -- and always have the two TVs on. The children know they are being exposed to sin.
The children describe in detail how they are disciplined when they disobey.
"What does her face look like?" one boy is asked about his mother. "Can you tell what she might be feeling?"
"It looks sometimes, it looks like it is hard for her," he says. "But she does it out of love."
The children understand there are two laws: God's law, which their parents have obeyed, and the world's, which they have somehow broken. But why is God's law so bad and the world's so much better? In a powerfully emotional exchange, the 11-year-old boy challenges his interrogators to explain it to him. And, of course, they cannot. They mumble apologetically, and offer him some pizza.
As for conditions in the foster home, he bursts out tearfully, "We have much, much better parents than this!"
It may seem curious that people so devout that they won't let their children watch TV are now inviting TV cameras into their homes. But Henry Hildebrandt has an explanation. "We can't call the cops. The media is our only defence."
The families he leads came to Canada from Mexico because they found the religious community there too backward and repressive. But here they ran into another fundamentalism, one that declares their difference to be deviance, one that can summon the police at any time and has all the power of the state behind it.
They came in search of freedom, to a country that prides itself on tolerance and diversity. And what they found was narrowness and dogma and persecution.