MONTREAL—Ontario was the “weakest link” in a child-welfare saga involving the Jewish sect Lev Tahor that fled Quebec in 2013 because the province has no way to enforce protection orders issued outside its borders, according to the head of Quebec’s human rights commission.
Jacques Fremont released a sweeping review of the years-long case that resulted in 200 people from 40 families who were members of the isolated group ultimately fleeing to Guatemala from Canada and the scrutiny of police, education and child welfare officials.
The conclusion is that the competing mandates and priorities of Quebec’s director of youth protection, which wanted to take children into its custody, and the Sûreté du Québec, which wanted to gather evidence for its criminal investigation, meant the Quebec government was unable to ensure the protection of some 134 underage, at-risk children.
After numerous isolated investigations of Lev Tahor in Quebec stretching back to 2006, including allegations of inadequate school conditions, suicide attempts, unsanitary living conditions and sexual abuse, the Lev Tahor probe had to re-start from scratch in for Chatham-Kent, Ont., when the group fled Quebec on the night of Nov. 18, 2013.
“A chain is the weakest at its weakest link,” Fremont said. “Ontario was the weakest link and that’s where (Lev Tahor) went. Was it by chance or deliberately? I don’t know.”
The review recommends that the Quebec government urge Ontario to change the laws so that court orders issued by judges outside of the province can be executed in Ontario.
“If (such measures) had been in place, it’s possible that in the days following their escape, the children — if not the rest of the community — would have come back to Quebec,” said Camil Picard, vice-president of the human rights commission responsible for youth.
Instead, child welfare investigators in Chatham-Kent received a crash course from their Quebec counterparts in the history of a reclusive group, which is labelled by some as a cult.
The group aspires to live according to a literal reading of the Jewish law as dictated by its leader, Shlomo Helbrans.
In practice, that means extreme dietary restrictions, long hours of prayer and isolation from the wider community in which they live.
Ex-members speak of corporal punishment, children forcibly removed from their parents and Helbrans himself diagnosing wayward souls with psychiatric conditions.
The group has denied doing anything wrong and says it has been persecuted.
Upon Lev Tahor’s arrival in Chatham-Kent, social workers began monitoring and rebuilding the child welfare case against Lev Tahor families.
Quebec’s child-protection authorities began showing their frustration when the crackdown took too long to materialize. When Ontario officials showed signs they were ready to move from study into action, and when border and passport officials started poking around for visa violations or denying the group travel documents, members fled once again, this time for Guatemala.
The conclusion of the review is damning. From the beginning of the case until the end, said Picard, “we lost sight of the interest of the child.”
The review is particularly harsh on the different organizations in Quebec that had a hand in the case, noting that it took 17 months before the province’s director of youth protection first began investigating and the time it was ready to take action to protect 134 Lev Tahor children deemed to be at risk.
The findings regarding the 134 children came after an August 2013 raid of the community, which rented houses in a town north of Montreal. Despite long-standing suspicions, the raid itself was delayed by four months when police investigators lobbied for more time to conduct their criminal probe.
While court documents have revealed police were investigating suspicions that Lev Tahor leaders were involved in human trafficking and forgery, no criminal charges have ever been laid.