09/05/2013 02:29 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

No culture misunderstanding when Mennonite kids removed: family services

WINNIPEG - The CEO of Manitoba's general family services authority says social workers were justified in removing dozens of children from an old-order Mennonite community and he doesn't know when — or if — they will all be able to return home.

Jay Rodgers says the case is unique in Canada, but he has no doubt the children were seized from their parents for good reason. Up to 40 children from the orthodox community were taken early this year after 13 people from the community were charged with child abuse.

"I don't have any concerns that the action that was taken was not justified," Rodgers said Thursday, a day after parents of 18 of the children appeared in court to try to regain custody.

"As this process has unfolded, there is lots that we have to learn about their culture. That's true. But it was not a cultural misunderstanding, I don't believe, that led to the actions."

In July, RCMP said they had arrested 13 people on assault charges that included allegations that the children were struck with cattle prods, whips and leather straps. The alleged abuse is 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 — and by extension their parents — are protected under a publication ban. The Canadian Press is not naming the accused or the small community where they live.

Some of the parents have agreed to guidelines set out by Child and Family Services but say they were told they won't get the children back before their next court date in October. The parents say they don't understand why the children were taken and are anxious to have them return home.

Old-order Mennonites shun modern conveniences, 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.

Some parents says that after several months in foster care, their children are beginning to lose touch with their faith and culture. One father said his three-year-old is speaking English, instead of the German dialect spoken by his parents, while another said his children no longer cry at the end of their weekly one-hour visits.

Paul Walsh, lawyer for 10 of the parents, said the children were seized following a complaint by some disgruntled older children in the community who "didn't like their lifestyle as sometimes teenagers and pre-teens don't, in any circumstances."

Rodgers said the reasons why the children were apprehended shouldn't be a mystery. Social workers have outlined them many times in court and the charges speak for themselves, he said.

While the agency is working toward returning some of the children to their parents, Rodgers said he can't say when that will happen.

"I can't say that over time all of the children will be returned, because we don't know that yet. But certainly our goal is to start returning kids."

Some parents have agreed to a set of guidelines that include agreeing not to "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."

Rodgers said social workers want to meet one on one with parents before they are reunited permanently with their children.

"We have also been quite clear with the community — and they're supportive of this — that when kids return, we're going to need to stay involved, at least for a period of time, to make sure that kids are safe and the community is continuing to respect the conditions that were set out."

The next hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 4.