Children living in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor in Quebec were medicated with melatonin to control their behaviour, couldn’t do basic math and were married off as young as 14, according to allegations made by youth protection services in court testimony made public today.
At the time of the hearing in a Saint-Jérôme, Que., youth court last November, the community had already fled to southern Ontario.
The testimony in court alleged children in the Lev Tahor community could be in imminent psychological and physical danger.
Authorities were also concerned about the possibility of mass suicide if the children were seized.
The judge ordered that the children be placed temporarily in foster care, undergo medical exams and receive psychological support, but the details of the allegations were covered by a publication ban until today.
An Ontario court is now deciding if the children will be returned to Quebec.
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.
“We were shocked, I think is the word,” Denis Baraby, director of youth protection in Quebec’s Laurentians region, told CBC News.
In a transcript of that November hearing, a social worker testified that Quebec provincial police were worried about the risk of "collective suicide" among community members if the children were seized.
“We learned of a few teachings that the rabbi was doing and other related information that alerted us to that kind of a risk," Baraby said.
That concern wasn’t raised with the authorities until after the families left Quebec, he said.
Lev Tahor community denies allegations
Child-welfare authorities and local police in Ontario say they found nothing unusual when they checked in on the Lev Tahor children. The community denies any mistreatment of the children.
Christopher Knowles, a lawyer for one of the Lev Tahor families, said his clients deny the allegations made by youth authorities and believe the facts have been misrepresented.
He said that if the authorities truly thought the children were at risk, they would not still be with their parents.
Social workers in Quebec testified that the group likely "staged" the scene when authorities came to investigate in Ontario and the majority of the members were tucked away out of sight.
'Children afraid of the outside world'
The community of about 200 people — about half of them children — was 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.
At the November youth court hearing, several social workers described a cult-like atmosphere where members were isolated from the greater community and tightly controlled by the group’s leadership.
“Those children are afraid of the outside world,” one social worker told the youth court.
“Children confirmed to us that they are afraid of burning in hell if, for example, they are not modest enough.”
Two social workers described for the court the case of a young woman who repeatedly told a friend in Israel she wanted to leave, but was afraid to lose her children. That woman later denied that story.
The court also heard about young girls who were married off, possibly as young as 14, to much older men. But other testimony contradicted that, saying the girls were 16 years old.
One of those girls was of particular concern because of an advanced infection in her feet, a condition the social workers said is common in the community because women must adhere to a strict dress code and are barred from removing their socks.
In 2012, youth protection received a report about a young girl from the community who was in psychiatric care at a Montreal hospital. She was threatening to kill herself if she was ever returned to the community, the social worker testified.
“She was not even 14 and she was engaged, promised in marriage,” she said. “That was one of her biggest hesitations. I mean, she didn’t want to get married.”
The girl was eventually placed with a family in New York.
Controlled by fear
The social workers testified that children were controlled by fear and medication, such as melatonin.
“Fear is used constantly by the leaders, but also the parents, because that is a message that is used,” one of the social workers told the court.
“For us, this fear, this psychological abuse, is serious risk for harm of these young children.”
Children interviewed by social workers spoke of taking vitamins and melatonin, a natural hormone supplement that helps with sleep, up to three times a day. Others said it wasn’t given to children.
A social worker testified that one of the bus drivers who transported the families from Quebec to Ontario suspected the children had been administered some sort of sedative, possibly Gravol.
The driver told youth authorities a man in the group instructed her not to open the door for the duration of the 14-hour trip and let anyone off.
“She saw the children urinating in Ziploc bags. No baby’s diapers were changed,” the social worker told the court.
The driver said to the social worker that the women and children ate only bread crusts for the duration of the trip.
The women and children initially seemed terrified when they got on the bus, the driver reported to the social worker.
“A few minutes later, there was impossible silence for the rest of the trip,” a social worker testified.