08/08/2013 05:49 EDT | Updated 10/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Mennonite parents want kids back, willing to abide by discipline rules: lawyer

WINNIPEG - Manitoba social workers want parents of an orthodox Mennonite community to promise they will only spank kids on their behinds and not use objects, such as belts, as punishment.

They also want assurances that children will not be injured or left with marks on their bodies.

The parenting rules and discipline guidelines are spelled out in a recent letter from the government's Child and Family Services Department to members of the tiny community, where Mounties made arrests over several weeks this summer.

In July, RCMP said they had arrested a total of 13 people for assault offences, some including allegations that boys and girls were struck with cattle prods, whips and leather straps. The province also apprehended all the children living in the community, about 40 of them, who ranged in age from infants to teenagers.

A court publication ban prevents identification of the children. No trial dates have been set and the allegations have not been proven in court.

Jay Rodgers, a CEO with the department, explained Thursday that the letter starts the process for returning the children to their parents. Staff are to meet Aug. 15 with leaders of the community and, if they agree to the terms set out in the letter, social workers will move on to the parents to get their assurances as well.

"It really is just sort of trying to lay out the agency's worries and the agency's concerns regarding how the kids have been treated," said Rodgers.

The letter says that while Child and Family Services doesn't support spanking, it's not illegal.

It further stipulates that parents must not "pinch, 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."

It says safety concerns are "based on children's disclosures of excessive physical discipline/child abuse."

Winnipeg lawyer Paul Walsh represents 10 of the parents who cared for a total of 18 of the seized children. One of the parents, a father, is among those facing charges.

Walsh said the province acted prematurely, taking all of the children when they weren't all in need of protection. "The complaints that relate to their children are general and there's no specific complaint of their being — in any way, shape or form — abused physically, sexually."

Yet, he said, his clients are willing to agree to the conditions.

"There's a lot of things in that letter that, merely because my clients say they won't do it, doesn't mean they ever did do it."

Walsh said some of the young children were still being breast fed when they were taken. Others speak only German and are having a difficult time with their English-speaking foster families.

"These are children and they miss their parents every minute, every day."

He also finds it offensive that the province is first meeting with community leaders to get their OK, instead of the parents.

"Damn the leadership," Walsh said. "My clients want their children back because they agree, not because of whatever the leadership decides to do ... They're willing to sign on right now and get their children back today."

Rodgers said the old order Mennonites have explained that chosen leaders make parenting decisions for the entire community. "We're trying to be very respectful of how that community makes decisions."

In addition to agreeing to terms in the letter, parents will be asked to take a parenting program being developed by the Manitoba Mennonite Central Committee, said Rodgers.

He added that if children are returned home, social workers will regularly visit the community to assess their safety.

Some of the adults facing charges have been released on bail on the condition that they not have contact with children. Walsh said if the children do go home, those adults would have to move out of the community.

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton