Lev Tahor family remains in Guatemala as Canadian authorities try to enforce apprehension order

Lev Tahor
Members of the Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish sect walk children home from school in Chatham, Ont. on Feb. 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

TORONTO –Six Lev Tahor children under an Ontario apprehension order have been allowed to stay with their parents after appearing in Guatemalan court Monday, as Canadian child services agents work with officials to retrieve and place them in foster care alongside eight others under the same order.

An Ontario judge issued an apprehension order for the 14 children following a Quebec investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect. The Lev Tahor community has claimed parents have done nothing wrong and are the victims of religious persecution.

Chatham-Kent Children Services Executive Director Stephen Doig said his agency hasn’t sent any staff to Guatemala but is working with Foreign Affairs in Canada, the United States and Guatemalan officials to resolve the situation in Guatemalan court.

“Working through the government officials, we’re doing what we can do to have them appreciate the court order that exists in Canada,” Doig said.

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The Guatemalan court reportedly didn’t find sufficient evidence was presented by Canadian authorities to proceed with a removal order. The judge let the group keep their passports and requested the family visit the Canadian embassy within three days of the ruling. RCMP referred Interpol Canada requests to Guatemalan officials, who declined comment Friday. A Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesperson referred a Global News request regarding consular involvement to Doig.

Lev Tahor children
A child from the Lev Tahor sect runs to his classroom in Chatham, Ont., on March 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

But this case is proceeding “very quickly” by Canadian standards, according to Queen’s University law professor Nicholas Bala.

“[Hague convention] cases often go quite slowly and unfortunately the history of Canada’s enforcement of Hague proceedings from other countries—including in South and Central America—is often very slow … [dragging] on for months or even years,” Bala said.
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He added that orders have to be proven in a particular manner, and it’s possible the Guatemalan court hasn’t received an authenticated copy, for example. He said the fact that Lev Tahor has been asked to attend the Canadian Embassy suggests authorities there are concerned with the situation and are dealing with it “fairly rapidly.”

“As I understand it, the judge in Guatemala actually met with the children and spoke through an interpreter, and was satisfied they’re not in any immediate risk,” Bala said.

VIDEO GALLERY: 16X9’s in-depth investigation into Lev Tahor

Bala suggested there’s the potential for Lev Tahor to submit refugee application in Guatemala, a move that would delay the court proceedings significantly.

“There has to be some inquiry, but the claim of persecution in Canada does not seem to be well-founded, but will have to be considered by the courts in Guatemala. Canadian courts sometimes refuse to send people back … because of threats of persecution,” he said, citing examples of parents bringing Roma children from Hungary to Canada who are permitted to stay.

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Bala explains the Hague conventions generally indicate apprehension orders should be respected and children should be returned, but there are two exceptions he suspects the Lev Tahor parents may argue: If a mature child objects to the return, and if there’s grave risk of harm from the return.

The “mature age” definition is a child-based assessment, typically estimated at around 10 years old in Canada, but can vary. Letters purportedly written by some of the Lev Tahor children and sent to media in January suggest they prefer to remain with their parents, though the degree to which parents were involved in the writing is unclear.

As to the next steps for Lev Tahor, Bala said it’s hard to gauge given the lack of information made available by Guatemalan officials.

“It depends on how much the parents are willing to fight this in Guatemala and what their resources are for doing that. But Canadian Hague cases sometimes take years to resolve,” he said.

“Yes, there’s been flight involved, but these are not criminal charges.”

Two other sect families with nine members attempted to reach Guatemala but were intercepted in Trinidad two weeks ago and returned to Canada; two minors were also taken into custody in Ontario after they were apprehended in Calgary March 9.

Doig said he’s aware of alleged hunger strikes that Lev Tahor claims resulted in the hospitalization of three children his agency had placed in foster care, although he wouldn’t confirm the reports’ veracity. Asked if it’s possible parents had told the children any food provided by outsiders of the community would be non-kosher or poisoned, he said the children have been put in “religious and culturally appropriate placements.”

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“Their lives are definitely not at risk right now,” Doig said.

Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.
Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. Kirk Neff / Global News

Lev Tahor community spokesman Uriel Goldman, who said he doesn’t know what the families’ plans are in Guatemala, suggests the order to apprehend the children is an act of persecution against the group’s religion.

“The Guatemala judge was the proof. … If it’s so obvious the kids are being so abused and are in such a bad situation, why didn’t this judge see that?” said Goldman.

But Doig reiterated that the order for the 14 children was reviewed by multiple judges in Canada who all reached the same conclusion.

“All of the evidence has been reviewed by three separate judges: One in Quebec, two in Ontario—one of which was a superior court judge—all of whom felt that there was sufficient evidence to order the children into the care of a child protection agency.”

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Meanwhile, Global News and other media organizations are in Quebec court arguing for more documents in the Lev Tahor investigation to be made public – and trying to obtain access sooner rather than later as hearings get pushed back by several months.