A youth court judge in Quebec has ordered that 14 children from the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor be placed temporarily in foster care, undergo medical exams and receive psychological support.
The order also compels the children's parents to turn over their passports.
The hearing, in the St. Jérôme courthouse, took place in the absence of the Lev Tahor parents.
The fathers of those families sent a lawyer instead.
Some 200 members of the group — including about 130 children — fled to the town of Chatham-Kent in rural Ontario with the apparent intention to resettle there.
The judge's decision came after Quebec’s youth protection services asked that the 14 children from two families in Lev Tahor be removed from their families and placed in foster homes.
Members of the Lev Tahor community of about 200 people — about half of them children — were under investigation by social services in Quebec for a host of issues, including hygiene, children's health, and allegations that the children weren't learning the Quebec curriculum.
They suddenly fled their home in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts for southern Ontario last week amid those allegations.
Child-welfare authorities and local police in Ontario say they found nothing unusual when they checked in on the Lev Tahor children that fled to that province. The community denies any mistreatment of the children.
Quebec child-welfare officials said on Monday they briefed their counterparts in Ontario on the case and would wait to see how authorities in Chatham-Kent and Windsor, Ont., decide to proceed.
Authorities in Ontario have only said they are aware of the group's presence in the region. The local police said on Tuesday that they checked in on the community and are monitoring the situation.
"An initial assessment of the children's well-being has been conducted with the assistance of the Chatham-Kent Integrated Children's Services and at this time there are no concerns," Const. Renee Cowell of the Chatham-Kent police said in a statement.
Concerns arose over children's education levels
The investigation began last winter. Quebec welfare authorities have described the situation for some children as "serious."
The head of youth protection for Quebec's Laurentians region said there were concerns about the health and level of education of the children.
There were claims the homes where the children lived were dirty and littered with garbage and that the children, who are home-schooled, were not capable of doing basic math. Many also spoke neither French nor English.
Quebec officials alleged the situation "establishes a presumption of neglect against children." The Quebec authorities had been working with the group until Nov. 18, when some 40 families left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts in the middle of the night.
"With the Lev Tahor community moving to Ontario, exchanges have continuously been made by the Quebec welfare office and aid workers in Ontario as well as police in that province," the Quebec organization said in a statement.
The Lev Tahor has denied through spokespeople that the children are being neglected.
Nachman Helbrans, a spokesman for the sect, has said they want to educate their children according to their own religious beliefs and fled to Ontario to avoid Quebec's education system, which "doesn't give freedom of religion as most people understand it."
Helbrans said the move had been in the works for some time.
Situation is 'sensitive'
In a radio interview with Radio-Canada on Tuesday, Quebec Education Minister Marie Malavoy called the situation "sensitive" and one that must be taken seriously.
The Education Department had negotiated with the community over the children's schooling, which is largely religious teaching, in an environment without proper permits.
Malavoy said the government offered compromises over the months but the families chose to leave.
"Our biggest preoccupation is the plight of these children, the well-being of these kids who are caught up in a situation for which they are not responsible," she said.
One expert on sects called the situation complex.
"Part of it is a need to understand how to deal with these kinds of closed groups," said Mike Kropveld, executive director of Montreal-based Info-Cult.
"Dealing with them and then deciding what to do is far more complex than people want to believe or understand."
Kropveld says it is important to act without exacerbating the situation. For example, he said if the leader is perceived as the sole representative of God, that person's power can be enhanced if the intervention of authorities is unsuccessful.
"You can make the group more closed and more extreme," Kropveld warned.
Lev Tahor's origins
The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart," came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.
Members of the anti-Zionist group, which opposes Israel and advocates Arab domination in the region, settled in a popular tourist destination in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal.
Elbarnes, who also goes by the last name Helbrans and is Nachman Helbrans's father, made headlines in the United States in 1994 when he was convicted of kidnapping a teenage boy. The boy was studying under him in Brooklyn.
After serving his sentence, Elbarnes was deported to Israel. He then entered Canada on a temporary visa.
A Federal Court ruling in 2005 upholding Elbarnes's refugee status in Canada found he could not be considered safe in Israel, in part because his "religious belief and opinion are against the mere existence of Israel as an independent country."
One Jewish rights organization called the group extreme and said that no one in the Jewish community — be they traditional or ultra-Orthodox — would view the organization in a positive light.
"This group exhibits cult-like behaviour and is nothing more than a perversion of Judaism," Frank Dimant of B'nai Brith Canada said in a statement.
"We are very much worried about the well-being of the children and have advised the social service and police authorities to ensure that they are properly cared for."