Kids shocked with cattle prod

Sins of religious community in court

Winnipeg Free Press/April 5, 2014

By Ian Hitchen, Brandon Sun

Incidents of horrific physical abuse of children in a rural Manitoba community were revealed in a Winnipeg courtroom late last month.

During the case of an Old Order Mennonite community member -- a woman who pleaded guilty to abuse charges -- the Crown said "counselling sessions" were held in which children were spanked, kicked, strapped and shocked with a cattle prod for perceived wrongdoing.

One girl was strapped and shocked for not eating quickly enough, and sometimes shocked for as little as the look on her face, court was told.

"The backdrop of it is actually tremendous physical violence with respect to the children," Crown attorney Adam Bergen said in late March, when the woman from the religious community entered guilty pleas to assault charges.

Neither she nor her community can be identified due to ongoing court proceedings and a publication ban.

An estimated 80 to 90 people -- more than half of them children -- lived in the community when allegations of abuse came to light. The community still used horse and buggies and abided by traditions dating back to the 19th century.

About 16 adults were charged with offences such as assault and assault with a weapon. Most were allegedly committed on a number of children from July 2011 to January 2013.

At one point, there were at least 13 victims.

There might have been more, court documents allege.

The 57-year-old woman who pleaded guilty admitted to two counts of assault with a weapon against two girls who were placed in her home after they were removed from their own.

At the time, one girl was 10 or 11 years old, and the other was between six and eight years old.

The woman's sentencing will be at a later date.

Bergen said the trouble within the community surrounded allegations of sexual improprieties among the parents and children of two families.

Those seen as community elders and other adults would hold counselling sessions in an effort to gain information about whether sexual abuse was taking place within families.

Violent methods of extracting information were used, the Crown said.

"Underlying all of this seems to be this sort of hyper-vigilance over any sexual thoughts on behalf of the children, and so that is what the counselling is geared toward," Bergen said.

Those allegations of sexual abuse -- repeated to police by children from those families -- were later all recanted or dismissed by police as untrue, Bergen said. It's how those unfounded sexual allegations were drawn from the children that forms the basis for the accusations of physical abuse, he said.

In a previous hearing, court heard the police investigation included physical examinations of the children.

Children were questioned by community elders and other adults -- often with leading questions or with specific hints -- about alleged sexual improprieties within their families, the Crown said.

When the children didn't remember things they were supposed to remember, or would falsely admit to the improprieties, violence would follow.

"The cattle prod is used for large animals and it's basically got an on-off switch and it's described by all the children as incredibly painful," Bergen said.

Due to the allegations of physical abuse, Child and Family Services apprehended all of the children in waves during February and June of 2013.

At one point, 42 children were in CFS care but community members have worked with CFS toward their return home. So far, about a dozen have been returned and 30 are still in CFS care.

Seven community members remain charged.

Charges against six of them were stayed.

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