What kind of mother would send her child to second grade with a swastika on her arm - and then help her redraw it after a horrified teacher washed it off?
A clueless mother, to be sure. But an unfit one?
That's the issue at the core of a high-profile case that began 14 months ago, when social workers seized two small children from a Winnipeg couple. They felt that the children were at risk of "emotional damage" because of their parents' deviant beliefs.
The parents had a bunch of neo-Nazi paraphernalia in their home. Dad was fond of posting out-and-out hate speech on websites. Mom (who described herself at the time as a "white nationalist") wore a swastika necklace. On the website, she allegedly described how cute it was to see the children goose-step. "It really is adorable, it's more fun when we're in the mall and I do it too."
But now the father is arguing at a custody hearing that being a neo-Nazi should not disqualify a person from being a parent. He has also filed a lawsuit claiming that his constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to religion have been violated. He says he has "dedicated my entire life to being a skinhead."
Drugs and alcohol may be other factors in this case, and the girl had missed a lot of school. The parents (now separated) seem to be as much white trash as they are white supremacists. Still, many people believe that their beliefs alone make them unfit to be parents. "Indoctrination to racial hatred and being a billboard for hatred is a form of child abuse," says David Matas, legal counsel for B'nai Brith Canada. "It marginalizes the child from society, and it has a lasting impact on character development."
But, as always, the question is: What's deviant? Which ideologies are the taboo ones? And who decides?
"If you're going to target neo-Nazis who haven't actually hit or sexually abused their children, who's to say conservative Christian evangelicals aren't next?" Bill Whatcott, an anti-gay Christian activist, asked in an interview in the Winnipeg Free Press.
In fact, they have already been targeted. Seven years ago, child-protection authorities in Ontario seized the children of a family belonging to a tiny sect that believes in strict corporal punishment.
Some child-abuse cases are cut-and-dried. But some mirror the moral panic of the day. In Britain, the definition of abuse now extends to children who are overweight. Last fall, a six-year-old was taken into custody for being too fat and, according to the Daily Telegraph, obesity was a factor in at least 20 child-protection cases last year. "It is drastic, but it's a long-term therapy," said a director of the National Obesity Forum. "For the sake of the children, it does need to be done because we have got children who are horrendously fat."
Well, so do we. Unfortunately, if the state started apprehending all the children whose parents think that pop and chips are a nutritious diet, it would have no place to put them. The same is true of odious beliefs. Personally, I would like to apprehend girls whose parents give them lipstick when they're 7 and enter them in beauty pageants. Or how about the parents who have never read their child a book because they have never read one themselves?
There are many, many, many forms of child abuse, and helping your kid redraw a swastika on her arm is only one of them. The problem is that the state's cure can be far worse than the disease. Being separated from your mom and dad is hard, even if they do happen to be fans of some guy called Hitler.
Meantime, the swastika mom has distanced herself (both literally and ideologically) from her husband. She has given up the Nazi gear, and you get the sense that she would do pretty much anything to get her kids back. Helping her daughter redraw the swastika, she says sadly, "was the stupidest thing I've ever done."