AYLMER, Ontario — In mid-July, 100 members of a German Mennonite Church of God in rural Ontario fled Canada to the United States, a few days after seven children from their congregation were dragged from their parents' home — literally kicking and screaming — by child welfare authorities.

The Children's Aid Society of St. Thomas and Elgin County, with the assistance of more than a dozen police officers, seized the seven children, aged six to 14, from their home in the southern Ontario town of Aylmer July 4.

The children had apparently suffered no physical or emotional abuse. The sole grounds for their apprehension was the fact that their unidentified parents, recent German Mennonite immigrants to Canada from Mexico, would not promise never to use a switch or belt when spanking their kids.

The Church of God, on the basis of the Book of Proverbs' warning that “he who spares the rod, hates his son,” holds that the Bible explicitly sanctions such corporal punishment by parents.

“It's just about the most disgraceful thing I've seen in my life,” said neighbor Ernie Timmins, Canadian Press reported. “A six-year-old girl, with policemen carrying her by [her] arms and her legs, and the fear in that kid's face was unbelievable. The screeching was so unbearable I had to leave.”

A social worker said that the Children's Aid Society's two-hour physical examination of the children had found nothing, and other neighbors testified the children were happy and playful.

As well, during the course of interviews with social workers, there was no indication that the children had ever been beaten, Canadian Press reported. Nevertheless, the children, who speak only limited English, were separated and scattered to foster homes throughout the region.

Neighbor Timmins later voiced the opinion that the police seizure would traumatize the children and that the social workers themselves should be charged with child abuse.

The social workers and police apparently responded to an anonymous complaint. The issue was not spanking as such, but rather “the use of inanimate objects, such as belts or cords or sticks,” said Children's Aid Society directory Steve Bailey.

Religious Persecution?

A week after the apprehensions, another Church of God family disclosed that they had been visited by Children's Aid Society workers. On July 15, the group's pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, reported that 100 of its members — 26 mothers and their 74 children — had fled Canada and were staying with relatives in Illinois and Indiana, fearing the attentions of the Canadian authorities.

By last week, the number of church members who had fled to the United States had risen to 118.

“Doesn't it sound like religious persecution?” said Aylmer resident Kelly Reiter, who runs a deli in the town of 7,000. “It sounds that way to me.”

At a hearing July 26, the seven children were finally returned to their parents, pending a full-scale custody trial in September, on condition that no one be permitted to discipline them physically and that social workers would make unannounced visits and interview them without their parents.

The fact that the children were returned was taken by most commentators to indicate that even in the judgement of the Children's Aid Society, they were never in any real physical danger. Hildebrandt stressed that his church does not countenance child abuse, saying that corporal punishment is taught as “a measure of last resort,” to be used only in a controlled fashion.

Said Hildebrandt, “I don't think we were deliberately targeted by Children's Aid, but once they became aware of what we teach, all of our families were at risk.”

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, Section 43, parents and guardians are explicitly permitted to use physical force with children, so long as it is “reasonable under the circumstances.” As well, there is no proscription of objects like spoons or switches in the criminal law.

However, Section 43 has been subject to several challenges by child-advocacy lawyers over the past decade.

The most recent challenge was launched by the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law, a children's rights advocacy group that earlier led a court campaign that lowered the age of consent for male homosexual activity to 14. The foundation challenged Section 43 last year, claiming that corporal punishment violates children's constitutional right to equality.

The umbrella Children's Aid Society for the province of Ontario intervened in the case, supporting a complete ban on spanking. The anti-spanking advocates claimed that Canada was obliged to outlaw corporal punishment by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In fact, the children's right convention — which Canada has ratified but which has not been ratified by the United States — does not ban spanking. Nevertheless, the U.N. committee overseeing international compliance with the convention has twice censured Canada for permitting corporal punishment.

Section 43 was upheld at the trial court level last year, but the verdict is under appeal. The case will almost certainly be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Despite the trial court's ruling in support of corporal punishment, provincial Children's Aid workers ignore Section 43, Hildebrandt charged. Instead, he said, they follow the Ontario Child and Family Services Act, which gives officials the power to apprehend children wherever there is an undefined “risk” that a child “is likely to suffer physical harm.”

Hildebrandt said that in the Aylmer case, social workers appeared unconcerned that the apprehension of the kids in itself risked harming them, “and they couldn't care less about our religious beliefs.”

Catholic Position

Bishop John Sherlock of the Diocese of London, Ontario, which contains Aylmer, said that he doesn't comment on particular cases without knowing all the facts. But he said he's “puzzled by the whole affair,” and thinks the social workers “should have found some less catastrophic way of intervening,” since the children apparently were happy and had suffered no physical harm.

“The role of the parents is paramount in the raising of children,” Bishop Sherlock said. “So the state shouldn't intervene unless the children are unmistakably at risk.”

Added Bishop Sherlock, “Most of us experienced a little reminder of reality, when we were kids, and it didn't do us any harm. Obviously, the Church doesn't support real violence against children, but parents must be free to exercise their own judgment.”

Joe Woodard writes from Calgary, Alberta.