MONTREAL—Ontario child protection authorities visited members of the radical Jewish Lev Tahor sect Thursday, one day after a judge's order that 14 children from the community should be taken into foster care.
Nachman Helbrans, a member of the group and the son of Lev Tahor's spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, said in a brief telephone conversation with the Toronto Star on Thursday afternoon that investigators with Chatham-Kent Children's Services were at his door. He did not talk about the reason for their visit.
But two weeks after the runaway ultra-orthodox sect fled their base in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., as well as an ongoing child welfare investigation, there is pressure on the Children's Aid Society in Chatham-Kent to take the children into protective custody.
So far, though, local officials are refusing to say if or how they will respond to the ruling of Quebec Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel, who ordered the 14 children, ranging in age from two months to 16 years, into foster care.
“Chatham-Kent Children’s Services is in communication with Quebec authorities and co-operating with joint planning,” said a spokesperson for the agency, Shelly Thibert. “No further comments will be made at this time.”
The Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”) community fled their Quebec base in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts on Nov. 18 in a convoy of three buses. The group says it’s being “persecuted.”
Most families resettled at a Super 8 motel in Chatham-Kent while others travelled on to Windsor. But William Bevan, executive director of the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society, said the smaller contingent left his city over the last two days and all of the community is now in Chatham-Kent.
Quebec authorities say they have documented cases of severe neglect, including poor nutrition and health treatment, as well as psychological abuse from a disciplinary regime that involves children being forcibly removed from their parents and being housed with other families. The approximately 130 children who are members of Lev Tahor are cut off from the outside world, taught a curriculum consisting mainly of religion and there are allegations of sexual abuse resulting from underage marriages.
The emergency order Wednesday from Quebec Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel said the children should be placed in foster care for 30 days and receive medical and psychological evaluations. They are to have no contact with Shlomo Helbrans, or other Lev Tahor members, and contact with the families is to be tightly controlled by child protection investigators in Quebec.
A number of the children are at or near the age of 13, which Shlomo Helbrans has said is the ideal age for marriage under his interpretation of Jewish law. The eldest of the children targeted by the court order—a married 16-year-old — is the mother of the infant child that has been ordered into foster care.
Judge Hamel said in his ruling that the Lev Tahor children are “at serious risk of harm.”
He cited a “a preponderance of evidence” that came out with the testimony of three child protection workers and a former member of the group who described his life with Lev Tahor and how he ultimately escaped its clutches. All of that information is now protected by a sweeping publication ban.
It is now up to Ontario authorities to decide if they concur with the evidence that was presented in court. Children’s Aid in Chatham-Kent has already been provided with the totality of the evidence gathered by their Quebec counterparts going back to August.
But this particular case is “extremely rare,” said Bevan. It would involve child protection authorities in two jurisdictions trying to co-ordinate how to carry out one provincial court order in the other province.
“Essentially there is no jurisprudence for provincial order being made in child welfare being made and being implemented exactly as ordered in another province,” he said.
“There has to be an agreement. In these rare instances there likely would be another (court) order in Ontario and then you could work out your arrangements where, once the kids come into care, where they would go.”
Lev Tahor members did not immediately respond to telephone calls from the Star seeking comment.
But one member, Mayer Rosner, told the Montreal newspaper La Presse that Quebec officials had were blowing any issues that existed in their community out of proportion. He said Lev Tahor is now being “persecuted.”
“They are using the judicial system to impose their own policies and their own vision,” he said.
Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, Teresa Piruzza, said in a statement Thursday morning that local agencies are “closely monitoring the situation.”
“Our foremost priority remains the safety and well being of the children and youth involved.”