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Manitoba Mennonite parents one step closer to regaining custody of children

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. - Members of an old-order Manitoba Mennonite community are one step closer to regaining custody of their children but say they don't understand why they were taken some sleeping from their cribs in the first place.

Eighteen children from the orthodox community were seized from their parents in June after 13 people from the community were charged with child abuse.

Ten parents were in court Wednesday hoping to get their children back. The adults said they agreed to guidelines set out by Child and Family Services but were told they won't get the children back before their next court date in October.

The families, who spoke for the first time outside court, said they miss their children and are worried they are losing touch with their beliefs.

"We'd like to have our children back tomorrow," said one father of four kids who are between two and six years old. "We, as of today, are unclear why they were taken and we would like to have them back.

"We love them and we would like to care for them at home."

One mother said her son celebrated his first birthday Tuesday, but she wasn't allowed to see him.

"I don't know if they even knew that his birthday was yesterday," she said.

Her youngest was still breast-feeding when he was taken from his crib as he slept, she said. The woman said every time she pumps breast milk, she thinks of him.

"That brings pain."

In July, RCMP said they had arrested 13 people on various assault charges that included allegations that the children were struck with cattle prods, whips and leather straps. The alleged abuse was said to have taken place between June 2011 and January of this year.

None of the allegations has been proven in court. The identities of the children are protected under a publication ban. The Canadian Press is not naming the accused or the small community where they live.

The community has been working with social workers, who wanted the parents to promise they won't use objects to discipline their children.

The parents say the longer their children spend in care, the greater the risk of them becoming estranged and growing further away from their beliefs. One father said his three-year-old now speaks English instead of the German dialect he would have learned at home.

"It's a big loss to us," said the man.

Another father said his children used to be excited and happy to see him during their one-hour weekly visit.

"There was a lot of weeping and wailing when they left," he said. "Now, they seem more confused. As every week goes by, family ties get less and foster parents get more. That is very distressing."

Old-order Mennonites shun the modern conveniences of life, including electricity and cars, and adhere strictly to Biblical teachings. While most believe in corporal punishment, those who know them say they are inherently non-violent.

Paul Walsh, lawyer for the 10 parents, said his clients are not guilty of child abuse.

"My clients have no apologies to make, nothing to answer for and their treatment of children has been appropriate," he said. "That will be found to be the case."

The children were apprehended because a few of the older children in the community complained to police because they "didn't like their lifestyle," Walsh said.

Child and Family Services spelled out parenting rules and guidelines in a letter sent last month as a way to start the process of returning the children to their families.

The letter outlines parents must not "punch, pull hair, sit on, slap faces, pull/pinch ears, burn, withhold food, or have children stand or sit for extended periods of time as punishment/correction."

The families of the 18 children have agreed to all the conditions, but there are other delays, Walsh said.

"The agency keeps moving the goalposts," he said. "It's just been a frustration. They're (families) trying to agree, but agreeing isn't good enough."

The issue of schooling is a thorny one, but the families say they have been given assurances their children will be home-schooled or attend a private Christian institution. The prospect of schooling outside the close-knit community only adds to the anxiety of some parents.

"We want our children back," said one father. "We want to be law-abiding citizens and love our children."



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