PANAJACHEL, GUATEMALA - A Spanish translation of Judge Lynda Templeton’s emergency order for the apprehension of six Lev Tahor children was scheduled to arrive in Guatemala Thursday, according to Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services.
The group of six children, their two parents and another sect member, Yoil Weingarten, fled Canada before an appeal was scheduled to be heard in the months-long court saga that threatened to place the kids in foster care.
It’s unclear what role the new paperwork will play. As of the end of business hours Thursday, the Guatemalan court had not confirmed its receipt, Doig said.
Guatemalan police descended on the hotel where the family was staying last Friday. They appeared before a judge who ruled that the children could remain with their parents and noted issues with paperwork from Canada. A second judge, who interviewed three of the children, agreed Monday that the kids could remain with their parents but the family must check in with the Canadian embassy.
On Wednesday, the day before the deadline to check in, a highly priced lawyer hired by the family filed an appeal of the judgment. Even if the appeal is not successful, the family has other routes to gum up the legal machinery in Guatemala, possibly for months.
Guatemalan law contains a mechanism known as amparo, which is a unique legal process that a person can invoke if they feel their rights are being violated. If the amparo is deemed legitimate, it can halt other court processes until it is resolved.
One of the family’s two lawyers, Fredy Alvarado, declined to discuss the specifics of the case.
Quebec child protection authorities documented allegations of widespread abuse within the sect, underage marriage and a sub-standard education regime. Quebec police have been investigating the group and searched several properties used by sect members earlier this year.
The information used to obtain that search warrant detailed even more startling allegations, which have not been proven in court, including beatings with coat hangers, crow bars and belts, punishing children by confining them in the basement and a practice of moving kids from one family to another if the parents were found to not be strictly following doctrine.
The sect has denied all of the allegations of abuse. They maintain that they are being persecuted for their beliefs.
A court hasn’t had a chance to fully explore the allegations because the members of the sect flee the jurisdiction. It happened in Quebec first, when families were summoned to appear in court but found to have fled the province. The interprovincial move presented authorities with a challenge, but ultimately an Ontario judge ruled that the children could be returned to Quebec.
Then they fled again. On the day an appeal of the Ontario ruling was scheduled to be heard, the families fled in defiance of an order that the children not be removed from Chatham-Kent.
“We don’t disobey courts, the courts disobey our human rights,” said Yoil Weingarten, the man who travelled with the family and has been speaking on their behalf.
When asked if the family would ever return to Canada, Weingarten said “it doesn’t seem likely.”
The family is staying at a hotel on the outskirts of the city. A nearby open-air market provides fruit, vegetables and fish for their kosher diet. A local realtor said they were looking for a house and Weingarten confirmed as much late Wednesday night.
When asked how long they plan to stay in Guatemala, Weingarten would only say, “we will see how it goes.”
Guatemala offers tourists a 90-day stay in the country. A source within the government’s ministry of foreign affairs indicated the family had applied for refugee status. It’s unclear what their immigration status actually is.
The Canadian government and child protection authorities have been working with Guatemalan officials, but haven’t revealed any details of the specific steps being taken to return the children. Experts point to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, of which Guatemala is a signatory, as a possible route.
In the first substantive update on the situation, Doig highlighted the complexity of it.
“The international aspects of the situation for the children in Guatemala have certainly complicated matters however we are working with the Canadian and American foreign affairs staff to determine next steps in this extremely unique situation,” he wrote in an email.