Quebec child-protection authorities are in talks with their counterparts in Ontario to determine the fate of 14 children in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who have been ordered into foster homes.
About 200 people from the Lev Tahor sect fled Quebec in the middle of the night last week as they faced an investigation by child-welfare services over allegations of neglect. They are now in Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario.
A Quebec Court judge on Wednesday ordered 14 children from two of the families to be placed in foster care; the children’s parents were not in court. After hearing evidence under a publication ban, Judge Pierre Hamel ordered the children placed in care for 30 days while the court assesses their files.
Judge Hamel’s order must be certified in Ontario before child-protection authorities in Chatham can execute it.
“We are in contact with Quebec authorities and co-operating with them in joint planning,” said Shelley Thibert, an official at Chatham-Kent Children’s Services.
The families from the radical community – known as Jewish Taliban because women dress head-to-foot in burqa-like robes – insist they are co-operating with Ontario authorities. Officials from Chatham-Kent Children’s Services have been visiting them regularly, and Nachman Helbrans, son of the sect’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, said he spoke to authorities on Thursday.
“They are doing their job,” he said.
Quebec youth-protection officials say the Lev Tahor children are inadequately home-schooled, live in squalor, and are denied basic life skills. Mr. Helbrans insisted that the children were not mistreated and the dispute with Quebec was strictly over their education.
He said he believes his community’s members will come to an agreement with officials in Ontario. “There is religious freedom in Ontario,” he said. “But it became harder and harder in Quebec.”
Another community member, Uriel Goldman, said members would not heed the Quebec court order because they felt it is now up to Ontario authorities to deal with them.
“If they are concerned about the protection of the children, here we are,” Mr. Goldman said. “We’re not that silly. We know the file will be transferred. We’re not running away.”
While the court order for foster placement is temporary, Mr. Goldman said the community is convinced the children would not be returned to their parents. “If the children go back, they’re not going to see their parents any more.”
An official with Quebec’s child-protection office said the ruling by Judge Hamel could not be appealed by the families, although it could be subject to judicial review. The community lived in the Laurentians town of Ste-Agathe-des-Monts before boarding three buses Monday and driving to Ontario.
With a report from Ingrid Peritz
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 200 families from the Lev Tahor sect fled Quebec; In fact, 200 people fled.Report Typo/Error