CHATHAM, Ont. – Six members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect were arrested Wednesday by the Canada Border Services Agency over suspected immigration issues, their lawyer said.
Some families in the Lev Tahor community are at the centre of an ongoing child custody case, including one family that fled to Guatemala, but according to a community member those arrested are not involved in the child welfare case.
CBSA agents went looking for seven Lev Tahor members who had either been ordered removed from Canada or had their status expired, said the group’s lawyer, Guidy Mamann.
Five of those people, as well as one other person who was found to have alleged immigration issues, were apprehended, Mamann said. He is working with CBSA to make sure the other two people authorities had been seeking comply, he said.
Members of the community told local radio station Blackburn News that those arrested are Israeli citizens and their visas had expired. One member of the community told The Canadian Press some of those arrested were American citizens.
The seven people arrested are known to have 28 children, Stephen Doig, the executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services. An unknown number of children whose parents were both apprehended were taken into care.
The children were all back in the community hours later, being looked after by relatives or alternate caregivers, Mamann said Wednesday evening.
He is also hopeful that some of the adults who were apprehended will be released by CBSA in short order. But if they are not they must be brought before the Immigration and Refugee Board within 48 hours of their detention being processed by CBSA.
CBSA said in a statement that a number of warrants were executed in Chatham for suspected Immigration and Refugee Protection Act violations and “several” people were arrested, though it does not mention the Lev Tahor community by name.
When a teacher in the community was reached by telephone in the immediate wake of the arrests, the sound of wailing children could be heard in the background.
“You take his mother, you take his sister, you take his father and now child protection wants to take him,” Joel Helbrans said later. “It broke all the families.”
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Mamann, who was meeting with Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans when reached for an interview, said the community was terrified during the CBSA arrests.
“It’s a frightening experience to look up and see 20-some-odd armed officers going from house to house looking for adults and children,” he said.
“These kids witnessed with their own eyes, with their own eyes, that some of their brothers and sisters, some of their friends, some of their neighbours, were taken by children’s aid and never came back. So if you were a child what could you possibly be thinking?”
Mamann, a Toronto-based lawyer who was hired recently, said he is providing a legal strategy for the group that has been lacking.
“That’s why there have been all kinds of difficulties that could have easily been avoided had somebody from the group really understood the legal processes,” he said.
“These people are really fish out of water. They get scared, they run. That’s not a legal strategy.”
Fourteen children in the Lev Tahor community are at the centre of an ongoing child custody case.
Eight were apprehended last month after leaving Chatham with their families ahead of a custody hearing. Six were detained in Trinidad and Tobago, en route to Guatemala, and were returned to Canada. Two others were found in Calgary.
Six other children, who are also part of the child custody case, remain in Guatemala where they fled with their parents and another adult.
A Quebec court ordered late last year that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care after the 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 the families.
The community settled in Chatham, where a judge ordered last month that 13 Lev Tahor children be turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec.
The judge didn’t include one girl who is both under 18 and a mother of an infant in his order. He delayed enforcement of that order so the families could have a chance to appeal.
That appeal was scheduled to be heard March 5 in Chatham, but instead Chatham-Kent Children’s Services brought an emergency motion that resulted in the order to place the kids in temporary care.
The appeal was at that time scheduled to be heard April 4.
The Lev Tahor community, which came to Canada in 2005 after Rabbi Helbrans was granted refugee status here, was under investigation for issues including hygiene, children’s health and allegations that the kids 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 allegations have not been proven in court.