CHATHAM-KENT, ONT. - The legal saga enveloping Lev Tahor families in Ontario could soon reach a resolution.
Superior Court Justice Lynda Templeton heard the final arguments in an appeal hearing Wednesday and will issue a decision by Monday, shortly before the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Templeton will have to decide whether to uphold the order of Ontario Court Justice Stephen Fuerth, who originally upheld a Quebec court order to place 14 children of the controversial ultra-orthodox sect into foster care. The appeal has been fraught with difficulty. The families concerned in the appeal were found to have left Chatham on March 5, the day it was originally scheduled to be heard.
Loree Hodgson-Harris, the lawyer representing Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, argued that Fuerth’s order should be upheld and that the Quebec youth protection agency had the best interests of the children in mind.
“There is nothing in the evidence that would suggest that the Quebec child welfare authorities have either not acted in the children’s best interest or could not continue to act in the children’s best interest. Nothing,” said Hodgson-Harris.
Earlier, Marnelle Dragila, counsel for the Lev Tahor parents, argued that returning the children to Quebec would place them at risk of harm.
“Moving this matter back to Quebec is really about holding the parents accountable for their hasty move, but in reality it punishes the parents on the backs of the children. It’s not about protecting the children or ensuring their best interests, and I submit for this reason it is the wrong choice,” she said.
Gerri Wong, a lawyer acting for one of the young parents in the action, agreed with Dragila’s position.
“In my submission it is now a reality that if your honour upheld Justice Fuerth’s order and the society took steps to enforce it, we have complicating factors which really do impact on the best interests of the children,” she told the court Wednesday.
Dragila originally intended to file affidavits with the court that may have shed more light on the situation of the children in care, but withdrew that motion Wednesday, saying in court that there were “a few errors and misunderstandings” with regard to the ongoing process.
The affidavits remain in the separate Ontario Court of Justice process, where Justice Lucy Glenn is hearing arguments over the current situation of the children in foster care and determining to what extent the parents can have access. She has sealed the court record.
The sect has been embroiled in the Ontario court battle since more than 200 members fled Quebec in November in advance of an order for 14 children to be placed in foster care.
Child protection authorities in Quebec have documented allegations of abuse, underage marriage and sub-standard education within the sect. Quebec police have been investigating the group for more than a year.
The sect maintains that all allegations of abuse are false and the result of a campaign being waged against the community by the government and child protection authorities.
A judge upheld the Quebec order in February but placed a stay on his ruling to allow time for the families to appeal it. On the day that appeal was originally scheduled to be heard, it was found that the 14 children were no longer in Chatham.
Templeton held an emergency hearing in secret that ordered the apprehension of the 14 children. Six were found in Trinidad and Tobago and two others in Calgary. Six more remain in Guatemala with their parents, where, despite the emergency order, Canadian officials have been unable so far to facilitate their return.
Seven young children remain in foster care, while one, who is a mother in the action herself, was released because she is 17 years old.
Justice Templeton is expected to release her decision Monday afternoon. The parents have been granted weekly visits with the children. The identities of the children and parents are protected by a publication ban.
She ended Wednesday’s hearing by directing the court’s attention to the children who were not present.
“There are a number of silent and invisible little human beings in this courtroom, and they weigh heavily on my mind, and it is only them who I am concerned about — and it is only their interests, their safety and their protection that I must concern myself with,” she said.
“Regardless of the outcome of this appeal, I can assure you that that was the sole focus of Justice Fuerth as well. Therefore I wish to refocus, as I leave, our thoughts and our efforts to the children who are not here today, and make sure that we all remember who they are and why we are doing what we’re doing.”