Chicago -- More than 100 women and children from a fundamentalist church in Canada have fled their homes for rural communities in the Midwest over fears that authorities will seize their children because church members administer spankings with switches and paddles.
The 28 mothers and their 80 children, members of the Church of God, a nondenominational church in Aylmer, Ontario, say they may ask for asylum in the United States.
Child welfare workers in southern Ontario took seven siblings from their home on July 4 because of corporal punishment meted out by parents. The children were returned home July 26 after their parents agreed not to use physical punishment while the matter is before the courts. The parents were prohibited from leaving the province.
"The whole issue is spanking and discipline, and how we see in modern times that when parents don't discipline their children, it leads to all kinds of societal problems," said Daniel Layne, a Church of God pastor in California and the group's spiritual adviser.
"Switching is used as a last resort, but the Scriptures clearly call for it and we won't give it up," said Layne, who was in Farmland, Ind., with some of the self-described refugees.
Layne said the families moved to Ohio and Indiana because those states have more permissive laws governing corporal punishment for children than Ontario, which allows spanking only within the bounds of "reasonable force." Canadian case law has interpreted that as prohibiting the use of objects such as paddles, sticks and belts, according to child welfare officials.
In the United States, there are no laws that specifically make parental corporal punishment unlawful. But there is a wide variety of child abuse laws that define when a child subjected to corporal punishment becomes an abused child, experts in the field said.
The law in Ohio, for example, effectively prohibits corporal punishment that creates a "substantial risk of serious physical harm," including hospitalization, risk of death, permanent incapacity or disfigurement.
"Basically it rules out the rack," said Robert Surgenor, a former Berea, Ohio, police detective who wrote a book favoring child spanking called "No Fear: A Police Officer's Perspective." However, in Florida, causing a red welt on a child's skin can lead to a fourth-degree felony charge and a five-year prison term, he said.
Howard A. Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said there have been several cases, including in Vermont and Michigan, where child welfare agencies intervened when religious practices called for corporal punishment.
He said there are no religious exemptions from physical child abuse, and states are fairly equally divided between strict and lenient definitions of when corporal punishment becomes child abuse.
Three weeks ago, when child welfare officials in Ontario ordered a second family of church members to report for an interview, all of the congregation's other mothers and children under 16 left Canada to live with Church of God members in Ohio and Indiana. They said they were afraid their children would eventually be seized if the corporal punishment law was not changed.
One of the self-exiled mothers in Farmland, Christine Rabel, said she "occasionally" uses a switch on some of her four children, who range in age from 8 years to 9 months, because "I was raised that way and that's the way I want to raise my children."
Rabel, whose husband, Karl, remained in Aylmer because of his electronics maintenance job, said she would rather move back to Canada if child welfare officials eased their prohibitions against corporal punishment. But she said that if it comes to seeking asylum in the United States, she and the other mothers would welcome it.
Ontario officials "should look at the whole family and not just at the law. We'll stay here until we get the okay that we're not going to be checked up on," Rabel said in a telephone interview.
Marijke den Bak, acting director of Family and Children's Services for the Aylmer region, said today, "We are certainly keen to find a resolution and not see this drag on through the courts forever." She said she was meeting with members of the church who are still in Aylmer in hopes of reaching a compromise.
The child welfare official said the church's allegations that excessive force was used when authorities dragged the seven children, screaming, from their Aylmer home on July 4 are "not a legitimate issue." But she conceded that the removal was "unpleasant and traumatic for the children, and we certainly wish it could have been done differently."
Den Bak declined to comment on whether marks indicating excessive physical punishment had been found on any of the seven children, who were not identified.
Layne said the group is talking with attorneys and unnamed "political figures" about the possibility of the families seeking asylum in the United States on the grounds of religious persecution.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, Karen Kraushaar, said the INS reviews all asylum claims on a case-by-case basis. She said the first step for the church members in seeking asylum would be establishing a "credible fear" of being returned to
Canada and facing persecution or torture. Then would come the more difficult test of documenting a "well-founded" basis for such fears.
Herbert Hildebrandt, a church official and the son of the Aylmer congregation's pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, said, "Our objective is that they [the exiles] come home, but we have to explore all other options in case things don't work out here. Seeking asylum is a contingency."
Peter Hildebrandt, Henry Hildebrandt's brother and pastor of a Church of God congregation near Cuauhtemoc in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua, said four families had fled there.
"We believe the Bible teaches it [spanking], and everybody knows that when parents neglect to discipline their children, the police do it in the street," Hildebrandt said in a telephone interview. He added that he believes "you can spank in a loving and kind way."
Layne, who was instrumental in founding the church in 1989, said it is more conservative than other congregations that carry the Church of God name. He said most adult members came from German-speaking Mennonite communities in Mexico or were once active in the German Church of God movement. The Hildebrandts are former Mennonites.