Flight of Lev Tahor children could have been prevented

Children's services didn't seek, and the judge didn't impose, a demand to surrender passports or report in daily.

HATHAM-KENT, ONT.—Several safeguards that may have prevented at least 12 Lev Tahor children from leaving the country were not in place despite a clear flight risk based on the group’s history.

The court could have, but did not, revoke the passports of parents and children of the controversial ultraorthodox Jewish sect, or order daily check-ins with children’s services.

There is no automatic flagging at the border of people subject to civil orders not to leave the country. And it’s unclear if police or border officials were even notified of the court judgment that ruled the children must remain in Chatham-Kent.

The lack of safeguards raises troubling questions, given the sect’s history of flight and disturbing allegations that Quebec child protection authorities and police have made about Lev Tahor’s treatment of children, such as beatings, confinement in basements for bad behaviour, forced medication and underage marriage.

Lev Tahor’s leaders have categorically denied the allegations and say they are being unfairly targeted because of their beliefs. None of the allegations has been proven in court.

In November, 200 members of the sect fled Quebec for Chatham in advance of a child protection order that would have removed 14 children into foster care for 30 days. Ontario Court Justice Stephen Fuerth upheld that order in February, but the only safeguard he put in place was an order for “announced and unannounced” visits by Chatham-Kent Children’s Services.

“By the time they came to Chatham-Kent, there’s no doubt that there’s a significant flight risk because they’ve already done it,” said Nicholas Bala, a University of Queen’s law professor and expert on family law.

“One would reasonably know that a group like this has contacts outside the country as well and can support international moves, potentially. It’s a good question why they didn’t take the passports.”

When Fuerth upheld the Quebec order calling for the removal of 14 children from Lev Tahor families, he placed a stay on his decision to allow time for the families to appeal. But he specified the children must remain in Chatham-Kent.

Fuerth made no provision for the children to check in with Chatham-Kent Children’s Services on a daily or otherwise regular basis, as he could have.

An appeal of Fuerth’s judgment was scheduled for March 5. On the day of the appeal, the Star discovered that nine Lev Tahor members — three adults and six children — had been stopped in Trinidad and Tobago en route to Guatemala.

Loree Hodgson-Harris, counsel for Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, made an emergency motion before Superior Court of Justice Judge Lynda Templeton, which was heard in a secret hearing that excluded media.

Media representatives were refused the time to consult lawyers or the opportunity to argue against the exclusion, and the proceeding carried on in secret, resulting in an order to apprehend 14 children.

Lawyers for the Star and other media outlets are fighting to have transcripts of the hearing released.

Uriel Goldman, a spokesperson for the sect, gave reporters little information as to the whereabouts of the children or the nature of their flight. He said Friday that the Lev Tahor members are still in Trinidad. He said the parents involved in the case are victims of a campaign being waged against the community.

“I cannot say any word about the families. I can only say about the community: We feel persecuted. We said it in the beginning; this family, they are just victims. It is a war against the community,” he said. Goldman said he did not know if the families were ever asked to surrender their passports.

Police and child protection workers visited homes belonging to Lev Tahor families late Wednesday, but apprehended no children.

Philip Epstein, a family lawyer with experience in international cases, said he was “surprised” there was no discussion of revoking passports in Fuerth’s ruling.

“The judge anticipated that the group was going to stay in Ontario and appeal and did not create safeguards that would have prevented the children from leaving,” Epstein said.

“Although he allowed the Children’s Aid to have unannounced visits and so on, there was obviously a sufficient time gap so that the Lev Tahor group could leave. He didn’t require a surrendering of passports, which might have prevented them from crossing the border or flying out of any airport, and he assumed they’re going to comply with his order, which is a bit unusual because they already breached the Quebec order.

“If you really wanted to prevent these children from leaving you had to take more stringent steps,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who has handled many international custody cases, said it is the responsibility of Children’s Aid officials to request reporting requirements and relinquishment of passports.

Canadian border officials have no way to detect people’s departures, he said, and child welfare authorities are responsible for notifying law enforcement if they are concerned someone could be a flight risk, even without a court order.

“Passengers don’t have to pass through exit control to board a flight and leave Canada, like in Russia and China. It is at the receiving country where people are stopped,” Kurland said.

“Who failed to pull the fire alarm when they had a chance to do it? This is what it is.”

According to Epstein, the only way a civil judgment prohibiting people from leaving can be effectively enforced by border security or police is if they are notified of it. Unlike criminal convictions, there is no automated computer system for tracking civil orders, he said.

“A civil order is not on a computer system and, as a result, nobody knows about it. It requires the extra step of making sure that the border authority and the RCMP are alerted.”

An RCMP spokesperson declined to say whether the force was notified. The Canada Border Services Agency directed all questions to the Department of Justice, which declined to answer questions because border security isn’t within its purview.

Chatham-Kent Children Services refused to say if they notified the OPP, RCMP, CBSA, the U.S. State Department, or any other local, national or international agency.

“I am not responding to the specifics, as I believe those to be a violation of client confidentiality relative to any specific case scenario,” said Stephen Doig, chief executive officer of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services.

Doig also refused to answer questions about how frequently the agency checked on the sect and families, what resources were used to monitor them and what, if any, steps were taken to make sure they did not flee, also citing privacy concerns.

Doig did not dispute that they never requested that passports be seized, but added a clarification.

“Relative to CKCS making a request for surrender of the passports — as you know the Lev Tehor families had legal representation that may or may not have viewed that request as overly intrusive,” he wrote in an email.

Chris Knowles, the lawyer who represented the group in the Fuerth hearing, does not recall Chatham-Kent Children’s Services ever requesting withholding of the families’ passports.

Lawyer Ian Mang, who teaches child protection law at Osgoode Hall Law School, said the issue over flight risk rarely comes up in child protection cases because they are usually “poverty-driven,” meaning the parents or custodians don’t have the financial means to flee a jurisdiction.

“This is a one-off type of case that is far removed from the standard child protection issue,” he said.

When the Quebec hearing ruled that 14 of the children should be removed, they were already out of province, presenting a legal challenge to the enforcement of the order.

The Quebec court heard testimony from a former sect member as well as social workers, who testified that the group fled Quebec in a harried and frantic way, with bus drivers instructed not to stop and children forced to urinate in plastic bags.

Sect spokesperson Goldman denied this, as well as all of the other allegations previously made, to the Star. He said the group had been planning the move for months and travelled at night so the children would sleep through it. He said they stopped frequently for the children to use the washroom.

The court judgment in Ontario was primarily a question of jurisdiction and not explicitly a child protection order. Fuerth ruled that the Quebec order should be upheld. The appeal of that decision has been rescheduled to April 4.

Chatham-Kent police, who are leading the multi-pronged investigation to find the children, said 12 have left the country, but the whereabouts of the other two is unknown. They are working with the OPP, RCMP, CBSA and international bodies to apprehend the children.

Canadian officials met again with Trinidad and Tobago authorities on Friday, according to a highly placed source in the islands who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

With files from Nicholas Keung


Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

The Children's Aid Societies of Ontario suck a billion dollars a year in direct operating costs and billions more in indirect costs created by their habitual fabrication of evidence.

The Children's Aid Societies have insidiously obtained "secret court hearings" by judges who are largely former CAS lawyers who seem to have an automatic fast track to the Judiciary where they rarely ever make a decision against their former employer. They are also notorious for placing children at a risk of harm, employing child abusers, psychopaths and seeking out and or indoctrinating professional fabricators of evidence that is assumed irrefutable by former CAS lawyers that were anointed to the Judiciary of Ontario.