TORONTO – Thirteen Lev Tahor children at the center of a child custody case spanning multiple provinces and countries won’t be sent back to youth protection services in Quebec, to the surprise of Ontario children’s services now caring for seven of those children.
Ontario Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton overturned Monday an earlier court decision ordering the Lev Tahor children placed in foster care in Quebec, from which the group fled late last year amid a child protection case.
Templeton said that to put further upheaval in the children’s lives by sending them back to Quebec would have “disastrous” emotional consequences and they should not bear the consequences of their parents’ hasty departure.
Quebec authorities were investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect when the community was living in St-Agathe-des-Monts. That investigation was continued by Chatham-Kent Children’s Services when the community moved to Chatham, Ont. last November.
One of the original 14 children has since been released from foster care.
The allegations – which include underage marriages, physical and psychological abuse, coerced drugging, a lack of education and hygiene concerns – have not been proven in court, Templeton stressed, but cause the court “grave concern about the health and welfare of these children and their protection,” Templeton wrote.
The Lev Tahor community claims parents have done nothing wrong and are the victims of religious persecution.
Judge Templeton ruled Monday that children’s aid in Chatham will continue to investigate the families and the matter will now go to Ontario provincial court to determine whether the children are in need of protection.
“Whenever a child is in our care, we work with the families in order to alleviate whatever the protection concerns were so that it would be safe for the children to return to the parents’ care,” Doig said.
But Denis Baraby, director of youth protection in Quebec’s Laurentians region, said he’s still worried that things won’t change in the ultra-Orthodox community.
“I think they have to improve their living conditions and maybe review their way of doing things with young girls getting married, forcibly putting them to marriage at the age of 14, 15—but this will be a tough thing to change,” he said. “I guess it’s well into their way of doing things.”
Baraby said his organization sent Doig all of the information and documents related to the case in November. Quebec authorities’ involvement in the case has come to an end, with one exception.
His organization will hold on to their warrant to apprehend all 128 children in the Lev Tahor community.
“We have a warrant that we will not ask the court to nullify; in case some families choose to come back to Quebec, we would want to keep the means to intervene towards these people,” said Baraby.
“We had informed the community leaders that we would go to court for all the children [in November] … Our intent was to bring the whole 128 children to the attention of the Quebec youth court.”
Seven of the children in the case were placed in foster care last month after Templeton issued an emergency order because the families fled the country ahead of the appeal hearing.
Two children were met by police March 9 in Calgary and returned to Chatham-Kent Children’s Services with the help of Peel police.
At least two Lev Tahor families left Canada for Guatemala in early March, but some of them were stopped in Trinidad. The group (three adults and six children) was detained by immigration authorities after its flight landed in Trinidad and Tobago on March 3. Authorities including child protection returned them shortly afterward to Ontario.
The six children and their parents in Guatemala have been there for several weeks following a court ruling in that country. Doig said Monday his agency is still engaged in negotiations to bring the children back to Canada.
With files from The Canadian Press