It was billed as the great test case of Canada's child-protection laws.
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 Canada.
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 impossible.
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 treatment.
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 inquiry.
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 messy hair.
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.
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