07/24/2013 07:10 EDT | Updated 09/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba Mennonite community gets help after 40 kids seized

Provincial officials in Manitoba are working together to help families involved in a massive seizure of children from a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba.

“This is a very unique and challenging situation,” said Jay Rodgers, chief executive of Manitoba Child and Family Services.

Dozens of children were seized earlier this year after multiple assault charges were laid against 13 adults in the community.

Court documents allege some of the assaults involved a strap and a cattle prod. The children seized range in age from less than a year old to 17.

Now Family Services officials are working to find placements for the children and helping families to create safe environments.

A restoration team has been formed that includes members of the community where the children were seized, as well as child welfare workers.

“The restoration team has come together as a way of trying to build a relationship between child and family services system and this community,” said Rodgers.

He said part of doing that is working with adults in the community to bridge the gap between their traditional beliefs and modern standards. He said child-welfare workers are helping the adults “to understand the laws that we have to work under in Manitoba and what’s acceptable and not acceptable discipline of kids.”

Corporal punishment

Rodgers said the process is about mutual education. “I think the community members have to understand that better from our perspective, and as a service system, we have to understand better from their perspective, their history and their culture.”

Former Mennonite Central Committee executive director Peter Rempel is also on the restoration team. He said the community reached out to him for help when RCMP began investigating the use of corporal punishment in some of the homes.

Rempel said RCMP was originally called into the community to look into another matter, but ended up focusing on the use of corporal punishment.

He said Family Services “started apprehending children because of the corporal punishment aspect of it.”

Rempel added: “That’s the point they called me and said strange things are happening here, which we don’t understand, and so I’ve worked with them since then.”

Rempel was first in contact with the community years ago when they first arrived to Manitoba from another province. He was with the MCC at the time.

Parenting courses

“There is a profound and deep desire to — I’d almost say — do what it takes to have the children returned,” said Rempel. “They came to me and said we need some resources to help us rework things.”

Rempel helped to pull together resources for the families to address Family Services' concerns about child safety. Counsellors have worked with some of the community members already, and parenting courses have been introduced.

“We are basically trying to do some educating and encouraging, and in some ways, maybe helping translate what Child and Family Services looks for,” he said. “We will work at what steps the community can go through to address the concerns about safety of their children and work towards having the children returned.”

About 40 children remain in Family Services' care. Rodgers said children will only be returned when the agency determines they will be safe.

“The mandate of child and family services under provincial legislation — under our laws — is to keep kids safe,” he said.