Twelve members of two families involved in a custody battle with the Ontario and Quebec courts fled their home in Chatham, Ont., ahead of their scheduled court appearance on Wednesday.
On that day, the members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect were supposed to find out the result of their appeal to keep the children that youth protection services in both Ontario and Quebec had ordered into foster care.
Instead, six minors and three adults from the Lev Tahor families were intercepted in Trinidad and Tobago while en route to Guatemala. Other members of the families who connected to Guatemala through the Mexico City airport on an earlier flight made it to their final destination.
Six children were on that flight, according to Denis Baraby, the director of Quebec’s Youth Protection Services (known by the French acronym, DPJ) in St-Jérôme, Que.
Baraby said two others — a 17-year-old mother and her baby — may be in the United States.
“When I learned that they left, I wasn’t surprised,” Baraby told Daybreak host Mike Finnerty on Friday.
“I think that we were all [fooled] by the people in that community, who manipulate their environment quite well,” he said in another interview, with Radio-Canada.
An Ontario judge yesterday issued an emergency order that the children from the Lev Tahor community, who are at the centre of a custody case, be placed in the care of child services.
The community had been under investigation in Quebec for approximately 18 months for issues including hygiene, children's health and allegations that the children weren't learning according to the provincial curriculum.
A spokesman for the community has said Lev Tahor children are given religious education and has denied all allegations of mistreatment. The group says the other children, not subject to the order, have been traumatized by the experience.
Possible for families to flee
The entire sect — of which about 200 people, including about 130 children, are members — picked up and left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in November after Baraby’s department tried to take 14 of the children.
One of the children is 17 years old and is also a mother of an infant.
They left ahead of a late November court appearance in which the DPJ asked for the children to be placed in foster care, instead sending their lawyer.
The court decided in their absence to take the 14 children and compel the children’s parents to turn over their passports. However, the families had already fled to the town of Chatham, near Windsor, Ont., at that point.
On Feb. 3, an Ontario judge upheld the Quebec ruling ordering the children in question to be surrendered to child welfare authorities in Quebec, but also granted them a 30-day appeal period in which the children were permitted to stay with the family.
The judge also agreed to not order the placement of the 17-year-old mother into foster care.
And on Feb. 24, Quebec Superior Court denied the sect the right to appeal its November decision to have the children returned to Quebec to be placed in the custody of Youth Protection Services.
“In youth protection, normally, judgments take effect the moment they are rendered,” Baraby said, adding that the Ontario court neglected to take into consideration that the family had already fled once.
“They fled Quebec to avoid court, and [in Ontario] they gave them a delay of 30 days that allowed them to get ready to leave,” he said.
Families retain lawyer in Trinidad
The two families stopped in Trinidad retained lawyer Farai Hove Masaisai.
Masaisai sent a letter to the country’s Minister of National Security in which he wrote that the members of LevTahor were being detained for no good reason.
In his letter, he also identified six members of the group as of Israeli nationality, while two have American citizenship and one has Canadian citizenship.
However, the Trinidad's attorney general said late Thursday three adults and six children from the sect had lost their attempt to prevent being returned to Canada. The group had filed an emergency petition of habeas corpus after they were stopped en route to Guatemala, but the High Court dismissed their claim.
The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart," came to Canada from Israel in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, was granted refugee status here.
The courts have heard that children's aid has intervened with the community in the past.
Children’s safety questioned
Jewish advocacy group B’Nai Brith Canada issued a statement Thursday expressing its concern for the welfare and safety of the Lev Tahor children.
“Lev Tahor is not representative of any branch of mainstream Judaism,” the statement read.
Baraby of the DPJ said that because the entire sect moved to Ontario, it’s up to local child protection services to take care of the other 120 or so children remaining in Chatham.
“In Quebec, we had started by bringing these two families to court. Our intent was to bring everybody to court because we felt that all the children were endangered while being in that community,” Baraby said.
The realtor for the remaining families in Chatham told CBC Windsor Thursday that they have not shared any plans with him to leave their property.
He said the last time they seriously considered moving was in January, at which time they were considering properties in Manitoba and elsewhere in Ontario.
“I’m still preoccupied very much by the fate of the remaining children that are still in Chatham and who have not yet gotten the attention of youth protection over there,” Baraby said.
He said he is in contact with his counterpart at Chatham-Kent Children’s Services and has offered his team’s assistance in the Lev Tahor case.