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Seven children forcibly taken from their home amid allegations their parents may spank them with sticks will remain in foster care until a family court decides it is safe for them to return home, an Ontario judge ruled yesterday.
The children, four boys and three girls aged six to 14, will be allowed supervised visits with their parents but will remain under the watchful eye of social workers until at least July 26, when a date will likely be set to hear the case against the accused parents.
After yesterday's two-hour closed-door hearing, in which child welfare workers had to explain why the children were seized, Mr. Justice Michael O'Dea ruled that the apprehension appeared necessary. "We are not shocked," said Henry Hildebrandt, pastor at the Church of God in Aylmer, Ont. "Knowing the way the system works, we are not surprised."
The proceedings, except Judge O'Dea's ruling, are under a publication ban. Dozens of people gathered outside the St. Thomas, Ont., courthouse yesterday afternoon, holding signs of support for a family they say is the victim of "incompetent" child welfare workers.
The gathering was similar to the group assembled outside the family's home last Wednesday afternoon when Aylmer police dragged the seven children, kicking and screaming, from their home. A neighbour of the family said he had to walk away because the wailing was too much to bear.
Workers with the Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin went to the family's home to investigate a tip, but after interviewing the parents, who are German-speaking immigrants from a Mexican Mennonite community, they became convinced the children were in danger.
They would not say what made the situation dangerous, but Mr. Hildebrandt had previously said the parents simply refused to promise never to hit the children with switches -- a disciplinary tactic he says is outlined in the Bible.
The case has enraged parishioners at the Church of God -- who believe spanking children with objects other than their hands is sanctioned by the Bible -- and has reignited the debate over whether parents should be allowed to spank their children.
Family rights organizations praised it as a legitimate way to discipline kids, citing a decision last year by Ontario's Superior Court of Justice that spanking, and the section of the Criminal Code that regulates it, does not violate children's constitutional rights as long as the force is "reasonable under the circumstances."
Anti-spanking advocates say it may be legal when it's done with a bare hand, but using a blunt object is nothing short of child abuse. Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin, has not commented specifically about the case since the children were seized last week.
"The court can now sort out all of the issues that are being identified, and obviously there are many issues," he said after returning to his office from yesterday's hearing. "We'll see what happens in a few weeks time."