Lev Tahor secret court transcripts made public

Transcripts from emergency hearings in the ongoing child welfare case of 14 children detail confusion and concern.

The Toronto Star/March 19, 2014

 By Wendy Gillis

Newly released documents from the Lev Tahor child welfare case reveal a scene of confusion - and of community members seemingly playing defence - when child protection officials discovered 14 children had fled the country days before their families were to appeal an apprehension order.

The documents also show workers with Chatham-Kent Children’s Services suspected the families would once again flee to avoid an Ontario court order to place the children in the care of children’s aid services in Quebec.

On March 5, Superior Court Justice Lynda Templeton issued an order to immediately apprehend 14 Lev Tahor children - “at the doors of the plane as soon as it lands” - because of the case’s “extremely unusual circumstances.”

Details of the emergency apprehension order, made during a secret court hearing, were made public Wednesday after Templeton reversed a previous decision to ban all media from attending the hearing or accessing transcripts.

The documents show Templeton and child welfare authorities moving quickly to arrange for the children’s immediate apprehension.

“I am entirely satisfied that the extremely unusual circumstances created solely by the appellants (Lev Tahor families) themselves require, as I’ve indicated, immediate intervention of the court,” Templeton said.

“My expectation is, so it’s clear, that if these children are returned on a plane that they will be apprehended at the doors of the plane as soon as it lands,” she said.

Eight of the 14 children who fled have since been returned: Six were apprehended after fleeing to Trinidad and Tobago, en route to join a group in Guatemala. Two others - a 17-year-old girl and her infant daughter - were apprehended at the Calgary airport.

The six remaining children and their parents are in Guatemala, in defiance of Templeton’s court order. This week, a Guatemalan judge ruled the six could stay with their parents in the Central American country, provided they return to court with paperwork signed by Canadian embassy officials saying they are allowed to stay.

Chatham-Kent Children’s Services workers discovered the children were missing after they arrived at the Lev Tahor compound in Chatham-Kent around 2 p.m. March 4. At the home where some of the children lived, they found no one.

The first sign something was wrong, child protection worker Ted Heath testified, was that the home was unusually silent. “Usually when we do visits we can hear lots of people inside,” he said.

Officials then attempted to enter a nearby school, where they spoke to an adult who would not tell them what was happening or if he had seen the family. They were not permitted to enter the school.

“It took 15 minutes of talking to him to finally for him to say he hasn’t seen them today,” Heath said.

Heath said he tried to speak to one of the community leaders, Uriel Goldman, about the children’s whereabouts. But he and two other community members, Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner - who Heath described in his testimony as controlling essentially everything in the community - moved to run away.

“We noticed Mr. Goldman got into his . . . minivan, and Mr. Rosner yelled ‘Nachman, get in the van,’ ” said Heath. They did.

“It was very odd to have them all leave the community at the same time and not be on site while we’re there,” he said.

Heath testified Chatham-Kent Children’s Services suspected Lev Tahor members would consider fleeing prior to the court date. He and another worker saw some of the 14 children on March 1 - three days before the group fled - and cautioned them not to leave.

Heath said he reminded one of the families they were expected in court March 5 for their appeal of an apprehension order involving the 14 children.

He said the parents, who cannot be identified due to a court-ordered publication ban, answered: “Yes, we know, we will be there, no problem.”

Heath said he and another worker, Jennifer Doran, searched the home for signs they would possibly leave, but found the clothes all hung in closets.

“It did not look like they were fleeing,” he said.

Child welfare officials returned to one of the homes the morning of the hearing.

“There was packing tape on the door,” Heath said. “It was just kind of down the seam of the door and we weren’t sure why that would be there, but it was all quiet inside and we heard nothing.”

At the March 5 hearing, child protection officials also spoke more generally about their recent communications with the community, specifically with Helbrans, Goldman and Rosner.

“Decisions in the community go through these individuals,” Heath said. “If we’re to be let into the home, it goes through these individuals. If they are not to let us into the home, it goes through these individuals.”

Documents show there had initially been a spirit of co-operation between Lev Tahor and the child welfare workers, but relations began to sour after a Jan. 27 meeting with the three community leaders.

At the meeting, they admitted to one case of underage marriage within the sect, though details of what was said were redacted from the court transcript.

The meeting was prompted after staff began receiving letters from family members indicating they were no longer willing to co-operate with authorities.

One of the letters, made public Wednesday, is over two dozen pages long and contains detailed endnotes. It is signed by Helbrans, Goldman and Rosner.

The letter said child welfare officials could enter the homes of community members but could not speak to the families. Among its allegations against child protective agencies in Quebec and Ontario are that they have lacked cultural sensitivity, failed to allow Lev Tahor to provide kosher food to children, and were “tearing apart innocent families.”

The letter said all the families “had lost their trust in the CAS workers.”

“It has become extremely difficult to trust that CAS can be partners with us in the best interest of our children,” the three leaders wrote.

They ask the service to “close permanently all the files related to the families of the Lev Tahor community, and terminate their visits and investigations unless there are reports of risk.”

The leaders say they wrote the letter because they believe it is their “duty to express the sentiments of the families in our community.”

But in their March 5 testimony, Chatham-Kent Children’s Services workers expressed doubts about whether the families they spoke to even understood what was contained in letters written ostensibly on their behalf.

Intake supervisor Robin Rose testified staff were concerned that the families giving them the letter didn’t understand it.

“(They) couldn’t read it when asked, didn’t really know what they were giving to the staff,” Rose said.

The possibility the community acted together to plan the departure of the 14 children, their parents and a few others was also discussed at the hearing.

Agency lawyer Loree Hodgson-Harris called the families’ flight a “carefully thought-out plan.”

“There is no way these three families could have gone without the assistance of every one of those community members, but in particular the community leaders,” she said.

At the court hearing, Hodgson brought forward an emergency apprehension motion under the Family and Child Services Act. Templeton immediately ordered all media and members of the public out of the courtroom and did not hear arguments or allow time for a media lawyer to arrive.

The London judge also initially ruled the court transcripts would not be made available until the safe apprehension of all of the children. Templeton overturned that decision Sunday, saying the ban on public access was no longer necessary because circumstances had changed and some of the children had already been placed under child services care.

Lev Tahor has been under investigation by child protective authorities for more than two years following allegations ranging from corporal punishment using crowbars, belts, whips and a coat hanger, to forced medication, to confinement of disobedient girls in the basements of the homes. Authorities in Quebec have documented allegations of underage marriage, physical abuse and more.

The sect has denied all allegations of abuse, saying they are being persecuted for their beliefs.

Last November, more than 200 members of the ultra-orthodox sect fled Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., for Chatham-Kent, in advance of the Quebec apprehension order.

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