Canada

Who decides what's right?

The issue of corporal punishment pits the children's aid society against the Church of God-and raises questions about government’s role in private lives

PATRICIA CHISHOLM September 10 2001
Canada

Who decides what's right?

The issue of corporal punishment pits the children's aid society against the Church of God-and raises questions about government’s role in private lives

PATRICIA CHISHOLM September 10 2001

Who decides what's right?

Canada

The issue of corporal punishment pits the children's aid society against the Church of God-and raises questions about government’s role in private lives

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

in Aylmer

Even on a hot summer day, Trudy Wiebe is wearing an ankle-length skirt in muted colours, a black vest and a pristine, long-sleeved white shirt buttoned to the neck. With her hair swept into a bun, Wiebe is the picture of an upright, 40-year-old wife and mother, who is also assistant minister to the ultraconservative Church of God in Aylmer, Ont. The 200-member congregation generated headlines over the summer for condoning ritualized corporal punishment. As Wiebe explains her beliefs, it’s clear her will is strong and uncompromising. But it’s also obvious she’s sensitive to the forces of social change

swirling around her. The passion that resonates just beneath her measured tones hints of a heart and mind well acquainted with the relentless effort required to maintain a way of life far more suited to the 19th century than the 21st.

Members of the Aylmer congregation outside a St. Thomas courthouse on July 9 wait for a ruling on the CAS’s seizure; Trudy Wiebe and son Ronald (right)

The cost of that commitment came crashing in on the congregation on July 4 when the local children’s aid society, the Family and Childrens Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County, in southwestern Ontario’s lush farm country, investigated a complaint that the children of a Church of God family were being disciplined with sticks and belts. After questioning the family—who may not be identified pending the outcome of a , court hearing this week—for 1 lh hours, police took away the children. As about 70 church members and neighbours watched, the four boys and three girls, iged six to 14, were dragged from their nome, kicking and screaming. It was, Wiebe says, a harrowing experience. “Our members were shocked,” she says. “It was our worst nightmare. The other children couldn’t sleep that night. They didn’t know when their tuin would come.”

The seven children were, in fact, returned under CAS supervision to their parents when they agreed not to use physical punishment pending the hearing. But then the CAS approached a second family a week later. The congregation— drawn mainly from communities in Mexico and the United States with roots in the German Church of God and Mennonite traditions—began to fear that any family with children 15 and urçder could be affected (youths 16 and over are outside the jurisdiction of children’s aid societies). “They saw that there might be no end and that the next day it might be them,” Wiebe says, “so they decided that the best thing to do would be to leave the country.” There are now 26 mothers and 93 children from Aylmer living outside Canada, most joining fellow church members in Ohio and Indiana. (Wiebe went with them but returned two weeks later after her younger child, Ronald, turned 16.)

It all sounds a little dramatic, a little overblown: could the local CAS be overreacting? For the most part, Aylmer’s Church of God congregation appears to have blended well into the community: most of the fathers work in Aylmer and the local chief of police, Bil Segui, says the congregation is close-knit, law abiding and family oriented. But the case is about much more than the seemingly endless debate over spanking children. It goes straight to the heart of issues that Canadians have struggled with before and most likely will again: religious belief versus secular laws, cultural tolerance and the power of government to regulate people s private lives— including how they treat their children.

For Church of God members, there’s really no debate. The group adheres closely to literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s an attempt, says Henry Hildebrandt, the pastor of the Aylmer Church of God, to return not only to traditional teachings but also to “the life that backs up that teaching.” That includes the idea that children benefit from a ritualized form of physical discipline using a switch or other flexible instrument. For them, the Old Testament admonition that sparing the rod will spoil the child means exactly that. “We don’t believe in using the hand,” says Hildebrandt, an energetic 38 with two teenage children, one of whom fled to the United States. “A hand should be used for guidance and comfort. Plus, the hand is way too ready. If a person is angry, they may just slap with their hand. We don’t believe in hitting children that way.” The alternative, Hildebrandt says, is a switch or a leather strap applied when emotions have cooled. And he says there is no obligation to use corporal punishment. “I spend more time telling people when not to use it,” he says, “than the other way around.”

All of which creates a knotty problem for the Family and Children’s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County. Under Ontario’s Child and Family Services Act, child welfare agencies have a duty to investigate and the power to seize children if they believe they’re being harmed or are at risk of being harmed. The agencies use provincial standards set by the ministry of community and social services to decide when to take children, and those guidelines, says Steve Bailey, executive director of the St. Thomas and Elgin County agency, include corporal punishment with an object.

“There is an assumption,” Bailey says, “that using an implement will cause harm or is likely to cause harm to the child. A hand is less likely to do that than a belt.” In fact, the society has clashed before with parents who, for religious reasons, use an object to discipline their children, but most of those cases have ended in a compromise, Bailey says. But Church of God members, he adds, appear more resistant than most to conforming with provincial standards. “It becomes very tricky when values conflict with legislation,” he notes. “But it appears that the law does not allow religion as an excuse.”

Well, that depends. Over the past decade, in particular, Canadian courts and tribunals have wresded over the conflict between religious beliefs on one hand and, on the other, Canadian law, standard medical procedures and even dress codes. One of the hottest conflicts between religion and secular society, in fact, was all about appearances. In 1988, Baltej Singh Dhillon challenged the RCMP when the force told him he could join only if he didn’t wear the turban his Sikh religion demands. Two years later, the RCMP relented, but a group of retired Mounties took the fight further. It was not until 1996 that the Supreme Court of Canada finally rejected their application to prevent turbans being worn with the world-famous red serge.

More troubling are cases that pit religion against the well-being of children. Increasingly, it appears Canadian courts will side with physicians and child-protection authorities. In the early 1990s, the parents of a premature baby girl refused to allow a blood transfusion because it conflicted with the teachings of their church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She received the transfusion only after an Ontario court ordered the baby be made a temporary ward of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society, which authorized the procedure. The parents later challenged the legislation, but the Supreme Court of Canada held in 1995 that their right to religious freedom did not take precedence over the child’s right to lifesaving medical care. Margaret Somerville, a professor of law and medicine at McGill University, says parents’ traditional unrestricted right to raise children as they see fit is starting to take second place to parental responsibilities—and much more often than in the past those responsibilities are being defined by public authorities. “The Supreme Court has been clear,” she says. “People are entitled to their own beliefs, but they can’t force those beliefs on a child, if it will harm the child.”

Nonetheless, the issue remains mired in controversy. Tyrell Dueck was only 13 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer in the fall of 1998. His fundamentalist Christian parents, of Martensville, Sask., resisted doctor’s advice that Tyrell be treated with chemotherapy; a court application by his doctors resulted in an order placing him under the care of the province’s social services, which authorized the treatments. But after three months, facing more chemotherapy and possible amputation of his leg, Tyrell refused further intervention and said he wanted to go to the Mexican clinic his parents favoured. A judge subsequently found he wasn’t competent to make that decision because of the undue influence of his father, Timothy. By then, however, the boy’s cancer had progressed and his doctors left treatment options to the Dueck family. Tyrell died a few months later.

The Aylmer families face no such dire consequences—at worst, they may decide to leave Canada for good. Hildebrandt is optimistic there will be a resolution to the case that will allow his congregation to stay put. But Wiebe seems less hopeful. She calls the CAS’s intervention “persecution,” adding the Bible warns Christians that such is their lot. She thinks it’s unlikely a middle ground will be found. The family at the heart of the controversy, however, is looking for a court-ordered solution: Valerie Wise, a London, Ont., lawyer representing the mother, says the CAS may not be taking accepted parenting practices into account when applying its guidelines on corporal punishment. The Church of God uses corporal punishment in a very formal, controlled way, she says. “It is not done in the heat of the moment. No one wants to see kids abused, but where is the balance?”

That, of course, is the heart of the matter. While church members may claim to use corporal punishment with great care, a parenting manual posted on the Web site of a sister congregation in Tennessee advises using a switch to control children as young as 10 months old. Hildebrandt has provided his congregation with the manual, Mommy, Daddy, We Would See Jesus!, as well as making it available to Family and Children’s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County. And while Hildebrandt has said his congregation doesn’t agree with everything in the tract, he acknowledges his members support most of its content.

Dan Merkur, a Toronto psychoanalyst and lecturer at the University of Toronto, believes many parents have become too permissive. But, he says, the form of punishment Church of God members routinely mete out goes way too far the other way. “This is a particularly cruel practice,” Merkur says. “They have picked a verse out of the Old Testament that happens to suit their tyranny. What about the verse in the New Testament that says, suffer the children to come unto me?’ At a certain point, it just gets silly. This is not about which scripture should be followed. It’s about ethics.” Yes, but whose? All signs seem to point away from the predictability—and comfort—of traditional religions and cultures, and firmly towards the ever-changing worlds of law, government, and academe.

Are Canadian laws eroding parents’ right to raise their www. macleans.ca