Various Quebec agencies lacked coordination and didn't act fast enough on suspicions 134 children of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect were being abused, the provincial human rights commission said Thursday.
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"Other considerations" than the well-being of the children were made priorities despite fears the kids were subject to forced marriages and denied a modern education, commission president Jacques Frémont told a news conference.
"Clearly, youth-protection interventions regarding the children of this community did not fully respect the principle of the child's best interests."
The results of the investigation were made public after the commission was asked in 2014 to study how Quebec's youth-protection services and its partners handled the Lev Tahor case.
Lev Tahor was the subject of a youth-protection investigation in Quebec over allegations of neglect and child abuse before members fled to Chatham, Ont.
Fremont said youth-protection and school-board officials dealt with community leaders as opposed to the parents of the children.
Moreover, 17 months passed between the time youth protection learned of the file and when it conducted a massive operation to enter the community and investigate claims of forced marriages and mistreatment.
"The means and methods used by school officials to remind community leaders of the law requiring children to attend school and to rectify the situation were clearly insufficient as they gave them a 15-month period to comply," Frémont added.
Clearer guidelines needed
The community lived for years in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, about 100 kilometres north of Montreal in the Laurentians.
Youth-protection officials concluded after a 2013 probe that the community's housing was inadequate, the children's health needs were being neglected and that they were not being given a proper education as most of them could speak only Yiddish.
Lev Tahor leaders have acknowledged the children are given a religious education but deny claims of abuse and underage marriages.
Youth protection signalled to the community that it was considering removing 14 children from their homes to put them in foster care.
A few days later, the entire community packed up and fled to Ontario without alerting Quebec authorities.
Some families left Chatham in March 2014 and went to Central America when a judge ruled that 14 children would be sent back to Quebec and placed in foster care.
The human-rights commission recommended the Quebec Health Department develop a guide on how to handle interventions concerning children who are members of "a sect or a closed community."
Additionally, the commission said the government needs to "ensure there is better coordination'' among various players — including youth protection and police — to act on cases of suspected child abuse.