Quebec officials say many more Lev Tahor children could be at risk

Quebec youth protection officials have obtained court orders for more than 100 children in the ultra-orthodox Lev Tahor sect, and are frustrated that their Ontario counterparts are not doing more to help, the fifth estate has learned.

Quebec obtained court orders for more than 100 children, Ontario child services urged to follow up

Male members of the Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish community attend prayers at their complex, in Chatham, Ont., in February 2014. (Dave Chidley / Canadian Press)

The head of the youth protection agency in Quebec that first gained access to the Jewish sect Lev Tahor is frustrated that children’s services in Ontario have not acted on Quebec court orders for more than 100 children in that community, CBC’s the fifth estate has learned. 

While an Ontario judge has upheld a Quebec court order to place 13 Lev Tahor children in temporary foster care, Denis Baraby, the director of Quebec’s youth protection services Laurentian branch, told the fifth estate that his agency is concerned for more than just those children.  

Gillian Findlay’s story on Lev Tahor is part of the fifth estate’s documentary After the Cameras Went Away. It airs Friday at 9:00 pm on CBC-TV, 9:30 in Newfoundland.

After Lev Tahor left Quebec, Baraby said youth protection authorities went to court and obtained orders to bring all the children in the community before a judge to determine if they are at risk. He said there were 128 orders in total.

Last November, members of the ultra-orthodox community suddenly left their homes in Ste-Agathe, Que. and moved to Chatham, Ont. They fled Quebec just before a court ordered that 14 of the Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care.  

Since then, several of the families have moved on again, with one now staying in Guatemala.

Denis Baraby, head of the Laurentian branch of Quebec's youth protection services, told the fifth estate that up to 128 Lev Tahor children may be at risk. (CBC)

Quebec youth protection authorities spent a year investigating issues related to hygiene and health, as well as allegations that children in the Lev Tahor sect weren't learning according to the provincial curriculum.

In court-filed affidavits, Quebec police also said they were investigating allegations of abuse, including beatings, confinement and marriage between underage girls and much older men. Leaders of Lev Tahor have denied all allegations against them.

Baraby told the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay that Quebec authorities handed over the court orders to their colleagues at the Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, expecting they would take them to an Ontario judge to enforce them. He does not understand why that has not happened.

“Frustrated, yes frustrated,” he told Findlay. “They [Chatham-Kent Children’s Services workers] had been in the community, they saw what was going on.  

“Things were bothering [them], and yet there is no more action regarding the remaining children. So there is something we have difficulty comprehending.”

The executive director of Chatham-Kent’s Children’s Services, Stephen Doig, told the fifth estate that his organization is not legally obliged to act on the Quebec orders, as laws are different between the provinces. He said children’s services will wait to see what ultimately happens to the case of the 14 children that is already before an Ontario court. A decision is expected Monday.

Doig said his agency is not actively monitoring all the children in Lev Tahor, but he said if there are concerns reported, children’s services will visit the home and do an assessment.

Baraby said that Lev Tahor members might be presenting Ontario officials with a different view of their community. For example, Baraby says that in media reports, he’s seen the children playing with new toys that they didn’t have in Quebec.  

“They’ve learned from their mistakes in Quebec, so things appear to be better in Chatham,” Baraby says. “If they are, you know it's going to be beneficial for the children because we know that they're seeing toys.

“I think we have all been manipulated by the community, even us.”

On the move

After leaving Quebec suddenly, some of the families in Lev Tahor have moved again.

The group is appealing the initial Ontario decision upholding the Quebec court's ruling to remove children from the community. But, last month, the families involved in the case did not appear in court.

Police officers in Guatemala escort nine Lev Tahor member to appear before a judge. (Romina Ruiz-Goiriena)

The fifth estate tracked down one family who went to Guatemala in early March, and was found staying in the tiny resort town of Panajachel.  

In an exclusive interview, the father of that family explained to Findlay why he took his six children out of Canada.

“There’s no child-abuse case or any problem,” the man said. “They [the children] have food, they have a place to live and they got the education that you want to give to them, because they don’t want the education that they have in public schools.

“That’s why I made up my mind to take my children to a place where no one can bother me,” he told Findlay.

The Lev Tahor members told Findlay they randomly chose Guatemala as their destination.  However, that country may offer them a legal haven.  

In Quebec, some of the allegations against Lev Tahor include marriage of girls as young as 14, and not following the provincial curriculum. In Guatemala, the legal age for marriage is 14 and there is no required educational curriculum.

The fifth estate learned that last month, Guatemalan authorities were warned that more members of Lev Tahor might be on their way to that country.

That warning came the same day the fifth estate learned that Lev Tahor’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, was detained in the Heathrow airport in London and sent back to Canada.

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans of Lev Tahor. From interview by the fifth estate in early 2014.

The nine people now in Guatemala were not the only Lev Tahor members who tried to get there.

In early March, another nine members of the sect were en route to Guatemala when they were detained at the airport in Trinidad and Tobago, and sent back to Canada.  

Three adults from that group were processed by the Canada Border Services Agency in Toronto and released, while six children were placed in the care of the Ontario Children’s Aid. They remain in temporary foster care. 

A Lev Tahor teenager and her baby were apprehended at the Calgary International Airport last month. They are also both in temporary foster care.  

The family currently in Guatemala is permitted to stay there for up to three months, under its immigration and visa rules.