Weeping kids defend beatings

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.

London Free Press/June 10, 2002
By Jonathan Sher

A judge yesterday struck down a publication ban on a trial at which Aylmer parents admitted hitting their children with a belt, stick, electric cords, a clothes hanger and a broken metal fly swatter that some of their kids knew only as a "spanking stick."

Those at the trial also saw the children, videotaped days after they were dragged from home July 4, 2001, defend their parents, saying physical discipline was meted out infrequently and with love.

On the videotape, one of the boys, in an interview room, wails "I want to go home."

Slapping a table and pointing a finger at Aylmer police Deputy Chief Andre Reymer, the boy spits out words between high-pitched screams, frightened by a world influenced, he said, by the devil.

"I want to stay by the saints. At home if we have a problem, we can go to our parents," the boy said.

Such gripping accounts were until yesterday cloaked by a sweeping publication ban imposed by Justice Eleanor Schnall at the start of the trial.

The ban was overturned yesterday after a challenge by the media that was supported by the parents and Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin.

Highlights of the trial include:

  • The father slapped the leg of his youngest son because the child, severely burned and in pain, squirmed while his mother changed the dressing of a wound that had not been treated medically. The slap, on a leg that had second- and third-degree burns, left a mark visible when a social worker responded in October 2000 to an anonymous complaint.
  • The first social worker to investigate the family failed to follow guidelines and has since left the agency. It appears the worker, who didn't testify, failed to interview the children individually, if at all, failed to follow up after a single visit and filed contradictory reports, one recommendoing the children needed protection, the other recommending the opposite.
  • In January 2001, a second family with Aylmer's Church of God was investigated by the agency, called in because someone complained their children had been playing after dark. That family admitted hitting their children with objects and gave the agency a book, called Mommy, Daddy, We Would See Jesus, which they said helped guide them. The book instructs parents to hit children as young as six months. The Aylmer church at the time sold the book to followers.
  • A day after the second family appeared in court in January 2001, the parents signed a legal document giving Aylmer Pastor Henry Hildebrandt power of attorney so he could sell their home. The following month, they left for Mexico. In March, on the day the parents were to next appear in court, Hildebrandt listed their house for sale.
  • On May 1, 2001, a new social worker was assigned to the initial case, Shelley West. It was her first permanent position.
  • In June 2001, the social agency contacted the family for the first time since October. By phone, West asked to set up an appointment, the eldest son acting as an interpreter for his mother, a low-German speaker who knows little English. The mother made no commitment, saying the family would leave later that day to a church retreat in Ohio. Before the family returned, West and her supervisor, Dawn Clarkson, decided West would visit the family unannounced.
  • About 11:30 a.m. on July 4, West drove to the family home with a Mennonite interpreter. Finding an empty house, they were walking back to their vehicle when the mother and children arrived. The mother admitted she hit her children with objects and had done so as recently as the previous month. The mother didn't want to be questioned alone. Her children said they'd phone Hildebrandt.
  • West left and returned an hour later with Reymer -- CAS protocol calls for police to be notified when children are hit with objects. Hildebrandt arrived a few minutes later, and the three talked, though the pastor's account differs from West and Reymer. The latter two said Hildebrandt reminded them of the church family that fled to Mexico. The deputy chief told the pastor they could return with a court order. The pastor agreed to let them inside, but to do what is a point of dispute. All three said it was to examine the children, but West and Reymer said it was to question them, too.
  • None of the children have marks or bruises but all said their parents hit them with a variety of objects, with the younger kids getting struck most often.
  • After interviewing the three girls, West phoned her supervisor and together they decide to apprehend the children. Reymer finished interviewing the boys.
  • By mid-afternoon, the front yard was filled with church-goers when West told Hildebrandt of their decision. Soon, the house was filled with parents and children crying and praying, their raised voices and numbers causing Reymer to order West out of the house and to call for police backup.
  • About a dozen police cruisers blocked off the residential street. Hildebrandt had told followers to hold on to the children. Reymer told him they could be charged with obstruction. The pastor told his followers to let go but told the kids they could hang on and struggle. Their father arrived home from work, his youngest daughter jumping into his arms, screaming. Police told him to let go. He raised his hands in the air, his daughter holding his torso, screaming, "Daddy! Help me!"
  • Police pried each child off adults and carried them one by one to cruisers. At one point they may have grabbed a terrified child from another family before letting go. A neighbour who testified, a large, tough looking-man, sobbed uncontrollably.

The children were returned home July 26 after their parents agreed, on an interim basis, to refrain from physically discipline and to seek medical care when necessary.

At the trial's end, Judge Eleanor Schnall will decide if the children need protection, and if so, what form that should take.

The evidentiary part of the trial ended Thursday and next week the lawyers will argue whether the the social agency and police obtained evidence in a manner that violated the parents' Constitutional rights.

That issue may determine the outcome of the case and could fundamentally change the relationship between Family and Children Services and parents accused of abuse.

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