The abuse of children is not negotiable
Monday, March 17, 2003 - Page A14
It was billed as the great test case of Canada's
Seven children in a Mennonite community in southwestern
Ontario were dragged from their home 2½ years ago by a
squadron of police officers and social workers. Photos from
that disturbing event were published in newspapers across
The parents acknowledged hitting the children with objects.
This was God's law, they said. Some commentators accused
the state of traumatizing the children in its zeal to protect
them. Who were the real fundamentalists?
Alas, it was not much of a test.
The confrontation with the police was "orchestrated" by a
Mennonite pastor, according to the long-awaited judgment
this month of Ontario Court Judge Eleanor Schnall. (She
issued a 99-page ruling as a follow-up to her one-page
judgment last October dismissing the parents' contentions.)
And the parents had no case. If they had had their way, they
would have erected a fence of constitutional rights around all
parents. A right to silence when Children's Aid comes
knocking. Children who could be spoken to only with the
parents' consent, or in their presence. This would have made
the job of protecting children from parental violence nearly
In Judge Schnall's view, and our own, the state acted
responsibly. A small boy had been injured (according to an
anonymous tip) and had not received appropriate medical
care. A social worker investigated, and concluded that the
boy had been accidentally scalded by hot coffee on his leg.
So serious was the burn that the boy needed seven hospital
and doctor visits before it healed. Near the burn was a
long-lasting bruise; the father told the social worker he had
struck the boy with his hand because he squirmed during his
All this properly raised a red flag with the agency. A new
employee, two months out of school, picked up this file after it
fell through the cracks. After determining, rightly or wrongly,
that the family was ducking her, the worker showed up
unannounced one morning, with a police officer in tow.
Justifiably, she was concerned the family would leave the
jurisdiction. Another family from the same Church of God
community had fled to Mexico during a child-protection
The social worker learned that the children were hit with the
wire handle of a fly swatter, electrical cords from appliances,
wire hangers, a belt and a switch. Sometimes the
punishments left what the children called "stripes." These
whippings (spanking seems a misnomer) were used for such
wrongs as failing to get out of the bath or going out with
Enter Pastor Henry Hildebrandt, a go-between for a
community that knew very little about the modern world.
Instead of offering to bring the family and agency together,
the judge wrote, he encouraged up to 100 frantic members of
his congregation who turned up at the house to resist the
removal of the children. No wonder the police officer called
for reinforcements to protect the social worker. The pastor
also arranged for the media to be contacted. When they were
slow to arrive, his son took photographs of the scene, and
supplied them the next day to the newspapers.
The parents wanted their differences respected. They should
know that, while accommodation is the law of the land, it is
not a licence to harm the vulnerable. Some people who
immigrate to Canada wish to perform genital mutilation on
girls. Some leave small infants in the care of eight-year-olds.
And some whip their children. Family and Children's Services
of St. Thomas and Elgin had the fortitude to speak up for
Canadian law. Twenty-two days later, when the family agreed
to stop striking their children, and to work with the agency,
they were permitted to take their children out of foster care. If
this case stands for anything, it is this: Canada will make no
accommodations for child abuse.