Lev Tahor families in Trinidad to be returned to Canada

Some members of ultra-Orthodox sect tried to flee to Guatemala amid custody battle with courts

CBC/March 6, 2014

Police in Chatham, Ont. say 12 of the children from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect who've been ordered into the care of children's aid are no longer in the country.

Some of the dozen kids appear to be in Trinidad and Tobago, where they are being held with three adults after being stopped en route to Guatemala. Other members of the two families were apparently connecting to Guatemala through a Mexico airport.

Police and child services are still trying to locate the remaining two children who have been ordered into children's aid care.

An Ontario judge has 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.

Families will be returned to Canada

A community member told supporters in an email obtained by The Canadian Press that two families whose children were ordered removed from their custody left Canada for Guatemala, but nine of the travellers were detained in Trinidad and Tobago during a stopover.

Among the nine stopped at the international airport in Port-of-Spain were six minors and three adults. Other members of the family were connecting to Guatemala through a Mexican airport.    

The Attorney General of Trinidad 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.

Immigration authorities in Trinidad met Wednesday with Canadian embassy officials about the case, according to Marcia Hope, a spokeswoman for that country's Ministry of National Security.

Community's homes searched

Authorities entered the homes of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect members in Ontario Wednesday night looking for children after members of some families at the centre of a child welfare case left the country.

Two police officers and four children's aid workers went door to door in the community of homes in Chatham, Ont., where the Lev Tahor members have been living since they left Quebec late last year in the middle of a child protection case.

Police would not confirm if they were looking for the 13 children at the centre of the court case, but a Canadian Press reporter, who was at the Lev Tahor complex when authorities arrived Wednesday night, could hear the officers ask parents to see their children and to produce identification.

The police officers and child welfare workers stayed at the complex for about 90 minutes and left around 10 p.m. without apprehending anyone.

Most community members could be seen allowing police into their homes, but not the children's aid workers. Police asked the landlord to let them into one home where there was no answer.

Not eager to return to Canada

The email from the community member to supporters details how two of the families at the centre of the order left Canada ahead of an appeal. The email indicates they were not eager to return willingly if the appeal did not go their way, though they had return tickets for March 13.

"The families choose to be on a vacation tour in the Caribbean on the time of the appeal hearing, to wait out for the decision of the appeal. If they see that the Ontario can force them back to Quebec, they will decide whatsoever to return to Ontario or even to Canada," reads the email.

The group of nine — three adults and six children — that went through Trinidad was detained "for no reason," the email said. Immigration authorities there wanted to send them back to Canada, but they wanted to be permitted to join the others in Guatemala, it said. The members of one family are American citizens and the others are Israeli citizens, the email said, so they dispute that they should be sent to Canada.

It's not clear from the email if all of the 13 children have left Canada.

Families retain lawyer in Trinidad

The group retained a lawyer in Trinidad, and a letter from him to that country's minister of national security was attached to the email. In the letter, Farai Hove Masaisai said he had not been given a reason for the group's detention and alleged they were being poorly treated and underfed.

"The manner in which they were treated personally brought me to a fundamental low and made me heavily embarrassed and ashamed to call myself a Trinidadian," he wrote.

When contacted by The Canadian Press, Masaisai said he could not comment because the case was before the courts.

In his letter, six members of the group are identified as being Israeli while two have American citizenship and one has Canadian citizenship.

An appeal of the court order that would see the 13 children turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec was scheduled to be heard Wednesday morning, but instead a lawyer for the local children's aid authority brought an emergency motion, which prompted a closed-door hearing with the judge.

Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton excluded members of the media from the hearing because she thought the presence of journalists "would cause harm to a child who is the subject of the proceeding."

Templeton made an order at the end of the day dealing with "the apprehension of the children who are the subject of this appeal," but the court refused to release that order to reporters until Thursday.

The actual appeal is now scheduled to be heard April 4.

Sect investigated for child welfare

Much of the Lev Tahor community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in the middle of a November night, days after a child welfare agency started a court case against a couple of the families.

In their absence, the court in Quebec ruled in November that the children be placed in foster care for 30 days, but the insular community had already settled in Chatham. The community maintains that the move from Quebec had been planned for some time as they felt persecuted in the province, especially in light of a proposed secular charter.

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.

A spokesman for the community has said Lev Tahor children are given religious education, but he has denied all allegations of mistreatment. The group says the other children, not subject to the order, have been traumatized by the experience.

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.

Testimony from social workers highlighted concerns that the community is almost completely isolated from the outside world, the children are terrified of others who are not modestly dressed or "pure," and some girls are married as teenagers.

When reporters went to the community Wednesday, some children peeked curiously from behind curtains while others waved and smiled.

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