The members of the controversial Lev Tahor ultra-Orthodox Jewish group who tried to flee Canada this week would have made a clean break but for the fact that some showed up late at Pearson International Airport, an official says.
The two ultra-Orthodox families, who are facing a court order to place their children in temporary foster care, tried to travel to Guatemala on Monday. However, nine of them missed their scheduled departure. They had to book a flight to Trinidad and Tobago, where they were denied entry and their passports seized.
Canadian authorities are now in contact with their counterparts in Trinidad and Guatemala to seek the return of the two families, said Denis Baraby, director of Centre jeunesse des Laurentides, the Quebec child-protection agency that initiated the foster-care request.
The two families were under an order by Ontario Court Judge Stephen Fuerth not to leave Chatham-Kent, Ont., where the community resettled last November, citing fears that Quebec officials would remove the children.
By contravening a court order, the fleeing Lev Tahor members have given Canadian officials more power to act upon them, Mr. Baraby said. "They are making themselves liable to criminal proceedings."
Following news of the two families' departure, Chatham-Kent Children's Services obtained an emergency court order allowing law-enforcement officers to stop them.
"Of the 14 children named in the Apprehension Order, 12 have left the country. Police continue to work with Children’s Services in an attempt to locate the remaining two children," Chatham-Kent police said in a statement.
Along with Canada, both Trinidad and Guatemala are parties to the 1980 Hague Convention. Under that treaty, custody rights are decided by courts in the country where the child usually reside.
Trinidad and Guatemala would therefore be obligated to return promptly a child who was wrongfully removed from Canada.
"It gives us, at the very least, leverage to try to bring those children back to Canada," Mr. Baraby said in an interview. "Right now, our justice department and the police are looking at what recourses they have. It could be arrest warrants for the parents. They are looking at the possible options under the Hague Convention."
The exact whereabouts of those who flew to Guatemala isn't known, Mr. Baraby said.
"What we know is that the family that is now in Trinidad arrived late at Pearson airport and couldn't get on the same plane as the others. But they all intended to fly to Guatemala," he said.
"I don't think they've analyzed this very carefully. They thought we would let go, but this being about the welfare of children, we won't give up. We'll take every possible judicial and legal recourses to protect them."
In a statement, the Trinidad Ministry of National Security said officials from its immigration division met Thursday with representatives from the Canadian embassy.
“The group is not being kept against their will, nor are they being detained,” the statement said.
Trinidad officials previously said that the group of three adults and six children had retained a lawyer and their spokesman, Avraham Dinkel, had tried to negotiate to travel to Guatemala instead of being returned to their port of origin.
Quebec police and child-protection officers had long investigated the 200-people community while it lived in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal, because of allegations that children lived in squalor, that there was physical abuse and that teenaged girls were forced to marry older men.
After the Lev Tahor abruptly relocated to Ontario last fall, Mr. Baraby's agency obtained a court order to place 14 children in temporary foster care. Last month, Judge Fuerth endorsed the Quebec court order, ruling that 13 of the 14 children had to be turned over to foster care (he exempted the 14th child because she is now 17 and is a married mother).
Mr. Baraby said his agency was also concerned for the approximately 100 other children remaining in the community. Most of them, having been born in Quebec, are Canadian citizens.
"We are preoccupied for all of them ... our intent was to submitted the case of all those children to the attention of our courts," he said.
Quebec police started investigating the Lev Tahor two years ago following allegations that girls were confined in basements and married by force, and that followers were kept under “psychological control” with medications.
Unlike other Hassidim communities, the Lev Tahor movement was only created recently so its members come from secular families who complain that their kin have been drawn into an ultraconservative religious group.
Reached in Israel, the uncle of two of the children stranded in Trinidad expressed frustration at the latest developments.
"My parents are extremely frightened and concerned about my sister's whereabouts. We haven't heard anything except that two of my nieces are in Trinidad. The rest of the family is still missing," the uncle said in an e-mail.
(His name cannot be published because there is a publication ban on information that could lead to the identities of the children.) Alluding to the Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, Shlomo Helbrans, the uncle said: "We are frustrated that Helbrans has pulled off yet another stunt. My sister has been held hostage by Lev Tahor for the last 18 years. I will not rest until she and her children are free."
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