Police, child welfare workers, search Lev Tahor community for children

Authorities entered the homes of ultra-orthodox Jewish sect members in Ontario Wednesday night looking for children after some families at the centre of a child welfare case left the country.

CHATHAM, Ont. — Authorities entered the homes of ultra-orthodox Jewish sect members in Ontario Wednesday night looking for children after some families at the centre of a child welfare case left the country.

Two police officers and four children’s aid workers went door to door in the community of homes in Chatham, Ont., where the Lev Tahor members have been living since they left Quebec late last year in the middle of a child protection case.

A community member told supporters in an email obtained by The Canadian Press that two families whose children were ordered removed from their custody left Canada for Guatemala, but some of the travellers were detained in Trinidad and Tobago during a stopover.

Trinidad’s government said the Lev Tahor members arrived Monday at the international airport in Port-of-Spain aboard a flight from Toronto, and were detained after immigration officials found “inconsistencies” in the travellers’ responses.

An order made Wednesday by a judge in Chatham dealing with the apprehension of the children is expected to be made public Thursday.

Police would not confirm if they were looking for the 13 children at the centre of the court case, but a Canadian Press reporter, who was at the Lev Tahor complex when authorities arrived Wednesday night, could hear the officers ask parents to see their children and to produce identification.

The police officers and child welfare workers stayed at the complex for about 90 minutes and left around 10 p.m. without apprehending anyone.

Most community members could be seen allowing police into their homes, but not the children’s aid workers. Police asked the landlord to let them into one home where there was no answer.

The email from the community member to supporters details how two of the families at the centre of the order left Canada ahead of an appeal. The email indicates they were not eager to return willingly if the appeal did not go their way, though they had return tickets for March 13.

“The families choose to be on a vacation tour in the Caribbean on the time of the appeal hearing, to wait out for the decision of the appeal, if they see that the Ontario can force them back to Quebec, they will decide whatsoever to return to Ontario or even to Canada,” reads the email.

They were going to Guatemala, some of the group via Mexico and the others via Trinidad and Tobago, the email said.

The group of nine — three adults and six children — that went through Trinidad was detained “for no reason,” the email said. Immigration authorities there wanted to send them back to Canada, but they wanted to be permitted to join the others in Guatemala, it said. The members of one family are American citizens and the others are Israeli citizens, the email said, so they dispute that they should be sent to Canada.

It’s not clear from the email if all of the 13 children have left Canada.

A security guard at a hotel in Trinidad’s capital of Port-of-Spain said he had been tasked with watching over a group of Jewish people from Canada. When The Canadian Press asked to speak with a member of the group, the security guard said the man was busy praying.

Trinidad’s government said immigration authorities have decided the group should be sent back to Toronto due to a Canadian investigation.

The group retained a lawyer in Trinidad, and a letter from him to that country’s minister of national security was attached to the email. In the letter, Farai Hove Masaisai said he had not been given a reason for the group’s detention and alleged they were being poorly treated and underfed.

“The manner in which they were treated personally brought me to a fundamental low and made me heavily embarrassed and ashamed to call myself a Trinidadian,” he wrote.

When contacted by The Canadian Press, Masaisai said he could not comment because the case was before the courts.

An appeal of the court order that would see the 13 children turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec was scheduled to be heard Wednesday morning, but instead a lawyer for the local children’s aid authority brought an emergency motion, which prompted a closed-door hearing with the judge.

Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton excluded members of the media from the hearing because she thought the presence of journalists “would cause harm to a child who is the subject of the proceeding.”

Templeton made an order at the end of the day dealing with “the apprehension of the children who are the subject of this appeal,” but the court refused to release that order to reporters until Thursday.

The actual appeal is now scheduled to be heard April 4.

Much of the Lev Tahor community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in the middle of the night, days after a child welfare agency started a court case against a couple of the families.

In their absence, the court in Quebec ruled in November that the children be placed in foster care for 30 days, but the insular community had already settled in Chatham.

The community maintains that the move from Quebec had been planned for some time as they felt persecuted in the province, especially in light of a proposed secular charter.

The community was under investigation for issues including hygiene, children’s health and allegations that the children weren’t learning according to the provincial curriculum.

A spokesman for the community has said Lev Tahor children are given religious education, but he has denied all allegations of mistreatment. The group says the other children, not subject to the order, have been traumatized by the experience.

The Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart,” came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.

The courts have heard that children’s aid has intervened with the community in the past.

Testimony from social workers highlighted concerns that the community is almost completely isolated from the outside world, the children are terrified of others who are not modestly dressed or “pure,” and some girls are married as teenagers.

When reporters went to the community Wednesday, some children peeked curiously from behind curtains while others waved and smiled.

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