Social workers given too much power, lawyers argue
Pastor says families must continue to discipline children
Toronto Star (Canada), Mar. 27, 2003
KATE HARRIES, ONTARIO REPORTER
ST. THOMAS—A judge’s ruling in a case involving the corporal punishment of children by their fundamentalist Christian parents will be appealed because it gives social workers too much power, lawyers said yesterday.
The appeal was announced at a news conference after Madam Justice Eleanor Schnall approved an agreement between the St. Thomas and Elgin children’s aid society and the parents, who were under investigation for allegedly beating their children.
The agreement followed the seizure of seven children from their Aylmer home in June, 2001.
The children were taken after an investigation by staff at Family and Children’s Service of St. Thomas-Elgin into allegations the parents were using corporal punishment. The agency then applied to have the children found in need of protection.
The consent order provides for six-months’ supervision, giving social workers unannounced access to the family’s home and prohibiting physical discipline of the seven children, aged between 8 and 16.
Following the 40-minute hearing, about 100 members of the Aylmer Church of God congregation crowded behind a scrum of reporters as lawyers and officials were interviewed on the front steps of this city’s stately domed courthouse.
Church members, young and old alike dressed in old-fashioned gray and navy outfits, listened quietly until the last speaker, their pastor Henry Hildebrandt, stepped up to the microphones.
“I am not a lawyer. I am a God-called pastor,” he said.
“I am here because God wants me to be here,” said Hildebrandt, who defiantly re-affirmed his church’s position that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.
“Whenever the laws of this land interfere with what the Bible teaches, you will find me on the Bible’s side, regardless of the consequences.
“I love children, and the way to bring up children in this world is to bring them up the Bible way … corporal punishment will continue as the Bible teaches it.”
Earlier, church members stood in silence as Steve Bailey, the society’s executive director, welcomed Schnall’s ruling, released last month, because it clarifies the threshold of force that is acceptable in disciplining children.
“The use of corporal punishment on children that results in children being harmed — the leaving of marks — is not appropriate,” he said.
Hildebrandt blurred the distinction between the two positions when pressed by reporters. “We are not after leaving marks,” he said, adding that corporal punishment is a “last resort,” and should be carried out in a “loving and kind way.”
Children’s aid representatives were taken aback when lawyers Michael Menear and Valerie Wise, who act for the parents, announced an appeal.
Society lawyer Alfred Mamo explained in an interview that a consent order usually includes an agreement excluding an appeal. In this case, he said, he agreed to leave the possibility of an appeal open, because “I didn’t want to go through with a trial (just) so they could preserve their right to have an appeal. But I didn’t know the decision to appeal had already been made.”
Menear said that the issue to be taken to a higher court focuses on the July 4, 2001 apprehension, not yesterday’s protection order. The principle at stake is control over the exercise of state authority, he said.
“The important issue for the people of Ontario is what do you do when the children’s aid worker comes knocking,” he said.
Schnall’s ruling strips parents of any protection against the capricious use of power by child welfare workers, he said in an interview. “I don’t know of any limits, safeguard, protection for the parents when the social worker comes knocking at the door.”
In her ruling, Schnall rejected arguments put forward by Menear and Wise at a hearing last summer that the parents’ constitutional rights were violated by the immediate apprehension.
The children had told West that in the past they had been disciplined with objects like a fly swatter handle or an electric cord, leaving red marks on their skin. Although there were no visible current injuries, the parents refused at first to promise West that they would not physically correct their children, and she reacted appropriately, Schnall found.