March 6, 2014 7:07 pm
Updated: March 6, 2014 7:08 pm

Lev Tahor families in Trinidad, Guatemala as authorities work to resolve stalemate

The Lev Tahor families' homes in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Kirk Neff / 16x9

TORONTO and CHATHAM, Ont. – Trinidadian and Canadian officials are trying to resolve the case of a group of children belonging to ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor who appear to be camped out near the island airport after fleeing the country instead of appearing in an Ontario courtroom Wednesday.

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Nine members of Lev Tahor – six children and three adults – were stopped at Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport after immigration officials found “inconsistencies” in the group’s statements, Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security spokeswoman Marcia Hope said in a statement. The group arrived there on a West Jet flight from Toronto earlier this week.

“The group is NOT being kept against their will nor are they being detained,” Hope wrote. “They were offered a hotel to stay of their choice and the West Jet airline representatives were working with them in all efforts of comfort. It should be noted however the spokesperson of the group Mr. Avraham Dinkel has refused the offer and was advocating strongly through their local attorney Mr. Farah Masai to go onto Guatemala.”

Hope said immigration authorities met with Canadian Embassy officials Thursday to “appraise the Canadian authorities on the ongoing developments regarding Lev Tahor and to advise with the consultation of the Canadian authorities on the way forward.”

Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.

Kirk Neff / Global News

Six other Lev Tahor children are in Guatemala, according to Quebec Youth Protection’s Denis Baraby, who didn’t know where the remaining two children were located as of Thursday afternoon.

But Baraby said Trinidad authorities had taken passports away from the Lev Tahor group on the island, preventing them from leaving. He said they weren’t detained in a jail, but believed they were at a hotel.

“We are hoping to get the legal authorization to ask Trinidad to permit us to take the children back to Canada, but for the parents it’s another matter,” he said. “My understanding is that we need some kind of a warrant from courts in Canada and this will be applied to the dealings with the federal government through the Hague convention, which is the treaty that was signed by most nations regarding child welfare and protection.”

Baraby said Quebec Youth Protection is working with the Quebec crown attorney to see if criminal charges can be brought against the parents. He’s also working with Sûreté du Québec, whose staff is speaking to their “colleagues from Ontario to … take some measures to prevent them from leaving the country.”

He said the lawyer Lev Tahor hired in Trinidad will contest any decision that would send Lev Tahor back to Canada, and that international laws had to be respected. His next steps will depend on which province the group returns to.

“If they come in from Montreal, for sure we will take over,” he said. “In Quebec we are ready if there is a need for foster homes. We have worked with the Jewish community to find proper foster homes for these children.”

According to a Lev Tahor member’s email to supporters, obtained by The Canadian Press, two families whose children were ordered removed from their custody left Canada for Guatemala, but some of the travellers were detained in Trinidad during a stopover.

The email says members of one family are American citizens and the others are Israeli citizens who were in Canada on work permits, so they dispute that they should be sent to Canada. Instead, they’re pushing to be allowed to travel on to Guatemala.

Meanwhile, an Ontario court has ordered 14 Lev Tahor children to “be placed in temporary care of the Chatham-Kent Children’s Services” with help as required from the Chatham-Kent Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police, Canadian Border Services, RCMP, and Peel Regional Office.

Ontario Court Judge Stephen Fuerth had ordered Feb. 3 that the children be returned to Quebec to the care of child welfare there. The judge gave Lev Tahor 30 days to file an appeal, which was scheduled to be heard Wednesday; Fuerth ordered the community not to leave the jurisdiction of Chatham-Kent in the meantime. It’s this 30-day stay that frustrated child-protection workers in Quebec.

“They still had their passports,” Baraby said, “so I guess that’s a measure the judge in Ontario should have ordered – that their passports be taken away – which wasn’t. So I guess you just said show up at Pearson and board your plane because there is no immigration control to get out of the country.”

And, he added, he’s worried more children will follow.

“The rest of the children, there is a rumour stating that they might try and leave also and go to Guatemala. So what we are trying to do to is get our colleagues from Ontario to do some kind of action and try and prevent them from leaving the country,” he said.

“We have spoken a lot about the 14 children but we are very much pre-occupied with all the children living there. From Quebec’s point of view we cannot do anything more because they are in Ontario. But we hope that our colleagues will take some measures maybe in removing them. That’s up to Ontario but at least take some measures to prevent them from leaving the country.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the community has fled a legal reckoning: The Lev Tahor group initially left Ste-Agathe-des-Monts in Quebec for Chatham, Ont. just before a November court appearance. Quebec’s social services agency was in the midst of an investigation into issues related to their children’s health, hygiene and allegations of child abuse and that the children weren’t learning according to the provincial curriculum.

Since then, more serious allegations were released to public: Heavily redacted court documents referenced allegations of drugged and confined children; corporal punishment, sexual abuse, psychological control, immigration fraud and underage marriage.

The Lev Tahor email said the families were travelling on “vacation” and weren’t eager to return willingly if their appeal of the order that 13 children be taken into custody doesn’t go their way.

READ MORE: Under the veil of Lev Tahor, Jewish sect accused of abuse

The hearing has since been rescheduled for April 4.

With files from The Canadian Press

© 2014 Shaw Media

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