An Old Order Mennonite community in Manitoba has welcomed back half of its children who were removed by social workers in June 2013 due to abusive disciplinary practices.
Adults were charged with assaulting children, allegedly with items including a leather strap and cattle prod while strapped to a board.
Of the roughly 40 children ranging from infants to teens, 20 are home and others are having weekly visits, said Peter Rempel, a former director of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba who facilitates a restoration team to help the community through its crisis.
“Child and Family Services has come to trust more and more that children will be safe with their parents, based on what they’ve observed of parents with their children on short visits, but also in terms of the ways they’ve been able to work through their questions with leadership,” Rempel said May 14.
Six children were returned home in November, and more have been coming home since early April, Rempel said.
“The pace has picked up,” he said. “It does seem we are all working toward the children being home by July or so.”
At one point, about a dozen adults from the community faced charges ranging from assault to interfering with an investigation. But Rempel said some charges were based on poor communication and misunderstandings with investigators.
“In all but four cases they have basically dropped the charges or are working out conditions under which they will drop charges,” he said. “But there are four men who face trials.”
The children’s return has prompted the community to plan to build a new school. The old school — demolished May 17 — was little more than an old trailer and shed, Rempel said.
“The community made the decision to dismantle that building and build a new one, partly because it was a shabby building and partly to demonstrate a new start for the children,” he said.
Many of the older children spent their time away from the community in schools that go beyond eighth grade — farther than they could go at home. The experience was positive, and they expressed an interest in similar pursuits back home.
The support group encouraged community leaders to consider making further learning possible, even if it meant correspondence homeschooling or other approaches.
“I’ve since gotten signals that they aren’t quite ready to go there,” Rempel said. “It would be a big change. They are in some ways the most conservative of Old Order groups. To have more than grade eight would be quite innovative for them. But they’ve had quite a bit of contact with the outside system.”
Other new contact — which Rempel described as increasing and positive — has come with the Ontario-based Old Order group from which the Manitoba group split. The contact was instigated in part by Child and Family Services, which brought some Ontario family members to Manitoba to serve as foster parents.
“There have been cordial phone conversations and letters exchanged, and there has been talk of a visit by Ontario Mennonite bishops to Manitoba,” he said.