An Ontario judge has upheld a Quebec ruling ordering 13 children in the Lev Tahor sect to be surrendered to child welfare authorities.
However, the children will remain in Chatham-Kent with their families pending a 30-day appeal period.
"We’re disappointed," Chris Knowles, the lawyer representing the Lev Tahor families, said outside the Chatham, Ont., courthouse. "It’s not the ruling we expected. It’s not the ruling that we hoped for. We have to talk among ourselves to decide what the next step is."
Child welfare officials are to make spot checks with the families to make sure they haven't fled, Justice Stephen Fuerth ordered.
If no appeal is filed, the children will be removed and placed in foster care.
Knowles said he is not sure there are grounds for appeal at this point, but he said his clients will consider all of their options.
"We just received the judgment, there’s a lot in there, so we need to decide whether there are any appealable issues," he said.
Around 200 members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community fled their homes in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts last November in the middle of the night, amid an investigation by Quebec social services into the well-being of several of their children.
The Quebec court ordered the return of the children from three families after they had left Quebec. The Ontario court was considering whether that decision should be upheld.
The families are appealing the Quebec court decision and, if they are successful, it could render the Ontario decision moot, Knowles said.
Well-being of children questioned
Sect members say they left Quebec due to conflicts with the government over their school curriculum.
They have said that home-schooling in Ontario offers parents much more freedom to teach what they want, and the group wants to stay there.
"We’re not fighting against [the Quebec government], we’re just fighting in favour of our religion and other religious groups to have the possibility to have religious studies as our education," said Uriel Goldman, a spokesman for the Lev Tahor members.
He said the families prayed as they awaited the decision.
“We do claim again and again all the allegations against us are false.… After so many months and months, hundreds of hours have been spent by officials, how is it that nothing was found? We do feel persecuted."
He said the group feels anti-Semitism explains the reason they were targeted.
Social workers concerned for children's health
However, social workers in Quebec painted an entirely different picture of the community.
Youth protection officials in Quebec’s Laurentians region said there were concerns about the children's health, their hygiene and shortcomings in their home-schooling.
Social workers also testified in Quebec youth court that they were concerned about the age at which some of the girls in the group were allegedly married off and also about reports of intimidation by the community’s leaders. They also told the court about some reported incidents involving children being given melatonin, a purported natural sleep aid, to control their behaviour.
None of those allegations have been proven in court.
Social workers who had been involved with the community in Quebec during the 18 months since youth protection services launched an investigation testified that the group’s departure in November was hasty and shocking.
They had a meeting with group members planned for the day after they packed up and moved.
'A very good decision': Quebec youth protection
Officials with Quebec's youth protection services said they are pleased with the judge's ruling.
"The judge rendered a decision where it was clear that what we decided here was justified, and that there was no reason to start a new investigation in Ontario. We worked for many long months here to carry out this investigation, and our decision was valid," said Francine Campeau, a director for Quebec's youth protection services in the Laurentians.
The Ontario judge was critical of the community's decision to leave in the middle of the night without informing Quebec authorities.
The group maintains that it had planned to leave the province and wasn't fleeing from the courts.
"It was a very well-organized move," Goldman said. "It was at night because it was the easiest time to do that. We were co-operative."
Goldman said they feel welcome in Chatham-Kent and have no desire to leave.
"We feel that we really are not in an easy position, but we hope we can be strong here for the future."