By Jason Magder (Montreal Gazette)
January 17, 2014
MONTREAL - Children in the Lev Tahor community are forced to take strong psychotropic drugs, and have fungus and bruises on their feet, youth protection officials claim.
In testimony from a Nov. 27 youth court hearing in St-Jérôme, made public Thursday after The Gazette and other media contested a publication ban, social workers for the Youth Protection Department of the Laurentians region made the case for removing 14 children from the ultraorthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor, which was based in Ste-Agathe until last November.
In advance of a youth court date, most members of Lev Tahor fled and relocated to Chatham, Ont.
In their absence, St-Jérôme Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel ordered the 14 children from three families into foster care for a period of at least 30 days. Hamel was particularly concerned the children had been denied a meeting with youth court lawyers, because their families did not show up for any court dates. An Ontario court is expected to rule on Feb. 3 whether youth protection officials in that province have the authority to execute Hamel's removal order.
The testimony was subject to a publication ban because Hamel was worried there might be retribution against the children who spoke to youth protection officials. Hamel was also concerned about a mass suicide after former sect member Adam Brudzevski told Sûreté du Québec police he was concerned this might be a possibility, though he denied there was a great risk of this when he testified in court.
The Youth Protection Department in the Laurentians was first alerted to problems within the ultraorthodox sect in 2007, when a new mother was found to be taking antipsychotic drugs in hospital. The baby was taken from the mother for a short period, but returned. Then several months ago, the child was placed with a foster family along with four siblings.
Last summer, after receiving reports that all community children were not attending school, youth officials made several visits per week to examine the living conditions in the community. Social worker Marie-Josée Bernier testified that a woman in the sect told a friend in Israel she wanted to leave the community, but was afraid her children would be taken away — a fact she denied when she met youth protection officials. Her children are among the 14 ordered to be placed in foster care.
Another Youth Protection Department social worker, Suzanne Tye, said parents told social workers children are often taken away from their families for weeks or months at a time as punishment for disobeying the community's strict rules. Tye said this was a form of psychological abuse.
Brudzevski, 28, testified that one toddler was routinely moved from one family to another and hadn't lived with his parents for months. He was picked up and brought to a new home every few weeks, often screaming and crying the whole way.
There were other troubling revelations during the hearing.
"Kids don't play outside," Tye explained. "There are four roads in a quadrilateral, and they don't leave. It's very isolated. When they saw us, they cried, or they prayed for us. They asked us why we're not burning up (because of the way we are dressed)."
One of the girls who is the subject of the removal order was 16 years old and pregnant when she first met social workers. Her baby is now four months old. She told youth protection officials she was married at 16, but later admitted she was actually 14 when she was married to a man in his 30s.
"She also admitted she was taking anti-anxiety drugs," Tye said. "But she asked us not to tell her parents," saying her husband has authority over her now.
She said the girl told doctors that the rabbi had wanted her to take a type of antipsychotic drug, but doctors said she didn't need to take it. She was instead prescribed an anti-anxiety drug. Upon searching her home after the community fled, police found antipsychotic drugs in her apartment, prescribed to her husband.
Tye said social workers had the children examined by nurses, who noted fungus all over their feet.
Nurses said the toenails of the girls they examined were very thick, and she suspected the infections had lasted for several years. In fact, several older women also commented that they had similar infections. The 16-year-old girl also had several bruises on her feet. Youth officials were not able to determine what caused them.
Tye said she suspected the infections were caused by adherence to the community's strict modesty laws, which compel girls and women to always wear tights, stockings and shoes.
Upon bringing their concerns about the infections to the attention of community leaders, Tye said the girls were permitted to remove their socks and tights at night, but many said they didn't feel comfortable doing so, because the practice was ingrained.
Brudzevski testified everyone in the community was encouraged to spy on one another. He said in one case his wife was seen walking in her house with socks and stockings, but without her shoes on, which goes against the sect's modesty rules. The girl's sister was the one who reported the event to village elders. His wife was later punished by being denied access to the house of her parents on the day of the Sabbath.
"It was essentially a house arrest," he explained.
Brudzevski also described how children were routinely slapped and beaten in school. Each classroom had either a wooden stick or a rod, he said. He worked as a substitute teacher in the community from time to time and said he was told that children who misbehave or speak out of turn should be beaten with wire hangers.
Tye said she was alarmed when she heard reports about the community's rushed Nov. 18 departure from Ste-Agathe in the middle of the night. She said the youth protection department had an email exchange with the drivers of the three chartered buses. The drivers said a leader of the community instructed them not to open the door of the bus for the duration of the 14-hour trip.
"No diapers were changed," she explained. "People urinated into Ziplock bags."
The bus drivers said they noticed there were more babies when they arrived in Ontario than when they left Ste-Agathe, and suspected some parents hid their babies under their clothing to conceal the fact there were more people on the bus than permitted. Drivers said most members didn't have suitcases, having mostly packed their belongings in garbage bags. One driver said the passengers only ate bread crusts, popcorn and almonds for the duration of the trip.
Bus drivers also told officials that while the group was boarding the buses, many members were crying and screaming, but within a few minutes of departing, there was an eerie silence that lasted the duration of the trip, which leads officials to believe the community members were drugged beforehand.
Community members told social workers they give their children melatonin pills several times per day to keep them calm, Tye said.
The hormone helps people fall asleep, but pediatricians have warned there could be long-term effects on children who take it regularly.
This wasn't the first time officials heard members of the community were controlled through drugs.
In 2012, social workers met the youngest daughter of a community leader. The 13-year-old girl was brought to the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in a suicidal state.
"She was threatening to kill herself if she was returned to the community," Tye said. "She was promised to someone for marriage, but she didn't want to get married. Her father insisted she had serious mental health problems and absolutely wanted psychiatrists to give her antipsychotic drugs."
Tye explained the girl was getting treatment at the hospital for several months. She was placed in a group home and then a foster family, both as a temporary measure, but her condition seemed to relapse every time she had contact with family members.
She was sent to live with an aunt in New York.
Tye said the department wants the children to be removed and returned to Quebec, because foster families have already been found within the ultraorthodox community in and around Montreal in order to ease the shock of leaving the community.