CHATHAM, Ont. - Children from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect must be turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec, where a court had ordered that they be placed in foster care, an Ontario judge ruled Monday.
Much of the Lev Tahor community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in the middle of the night days after a child welfare agency started a court case against a couple of families, involving 14 children.
In their absence, the court in Quebec ruled in November that the children be placed in care for 30 days, but the insular community had already settled in Chatham, Ont.
When the children's aid society here went to court to ask that the Quebec court order be enforced, Lev Tahor argued that Ontario had no jurisdiction.
But Ontario Court Judge Stephen Fuerth ordered Monday that the children — with the exception of a 17-year-old who is also married and a mother — be returned to Quebec to the care of child welfare there.
"It would be impractical at best and potentially harmful at worst if the society were now required, in the context of the need to protect the children, to conduct a separate and new investigation into all of the issues currently before the Court of Quebec...simply because the parents have decided as a tactical manoeuvre to absent themselves from Quebec in order to frustrate the process of justice that had started," Fuerth said in his decision.
The community maintains the move out of Quebec had been planned for some time, but Fuerth said the evidence can lead to no other conclusion than their move being "directly attributable" to the pending court case that could result in the removal of their children. Some jewelry and credit cards were found left behind, and one coffee maker was left on, court heard.
"The community did not move. It fled in haste in the face of a proceeding that the community perceived to be placing its children at risk of apprehension by the Quebec agency," the judge said.
"The unilateral actions of the respondents to flee from Quebec placed these children at further risk of harm and could not be construed as concern for the interests of their children," Fuerth said in his decision.
The judge put a 30-day stay on the order to give the families a chance to appeal.
Lawyer Chris Knowles said he still had to review the decision with the families to see if there are any avenues of appeal. But Uriel Goldman — a community spokesman — was firm in his desire to see the Ontario order appealed.
"We are really disappointed, but I don't think the spirit of the community will go on regularly," Goldman said on behalf of the affected families. "We (are) going to do all legal avenues that are open."
The families are already appealing the original order in Quebec. Knowles said it is possible that a court in Quebec could overturn that decision before the 30-day period in Ontario expires.
During those 30 days, child protection workers in Chatham will be allowed to randomly drop in on the community to make sure the children are still there and to assess their well-being.
The community was under investigation for issues including hygiene, children's health and allegations that the children weren't learning according to the provincial curriculum.
The children are given religious education, said Goldman, but he denied all allegations of mistreatment.
Lev Tahor felt persecuted in Quebec, especially in light of a proposed secular charter, said Goldman.
"We have a Canadian charter of rights, a freedom of religion and we do think it wasn't properly addressed in Quebec," he said. "We are very happy here (in Chatham) and we establish our community here."
The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart,'' came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.
Children's aid has intervened with the community in the past, court heard through transcripts of social workers' testimony. Social workers say they are concerned that the community is almost completely isolated from the outside world and the children are terrified of others who are not modestly dressed or "pure." The leader makes all decisions, a social worker said, and some girls are married as teenagers.
Regarding the children in this case, because of a restriction that females in the community cannot remove their socks, one child's feet were "blue" from the amount of toe fungus, the social worker said. Community members said the infection could be cleared up with coconut oil and they were willing to modify their restriction to allow women to take their socks off at night, the social worker said.
Francine Campeau, legal counsel for the youth protection office in the Laurentians, said the Ontario legal victory is bittersweet as the children will remain in Chatham for at least the next 30 days.
"We're satisfied that the judge in Ontario saw the validity of the ruling rendered by Quebec youth court Judge Pierre Hamel," Campeau said.
"It assures there is a continuity between the decisions delivered in both provinces."