System failed to protect Lev Tahor children: report

By Jason Magder (Montreal Gazette)
July 9, 2015

It took youth protection officials far too long to intervene in the case of 134 children who were part of the Lev Tahor community living for a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, a report from the Quebec human-rights commission concluded.

In November 2013, about 250 members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect fled the Laurentians town to avoid a hearing in youth court. The group was facing allegations of child abuse and neglect from Quebec’s youth-protection department — such as corporal punishment in school, underage marriage, sexual abuse of minors and squalid living conditions.

The commission made public a report into the case on Thursday morning, which noted several failures in how the system handled the case. The report was commissioned by the Parti Québécois government in the aftermath of the community’s departure.

Camil Picard, the vice-president of youth issues for the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, said the delays in this case were “incomprehensible,” considering the fact it took 17 months for youth protection officials to move to seize the children after the problem was first identified.

It also took school board officials 15 months to take action to get proper schooling for the children in the community. The children were receiving a strictly religious education, and spoke neither English nor French. Picard said children have the right to receive a proper education, and if they don’t get that, youth officials must intervene.

“In this situation, it’s clear that the (parties) systematically failed in their role to protect the children, including health services, the education department and youth protection,” Picard said.

Documents issued in court by police to obtain warrants allege girls as young as 13 and 14 in the community are routinely married off to men who are much older. The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16. The documents also allege sexual and physical abuse of children within the sect. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The Sûreté du Québec was also investigating the sect for suspicions of human trafficking, producing false documents and kidnapping.

Jacques Frémont, the president of the Quebec human rights commission, said that the youth protection department should have been much more proactive, and sharply criticized a decision to delay its intervention by three months at the request of the SQ.

“It was the prerogative of the department to refuse the delay,” Frémont said. “It could have given the SQ a couple of days (to collect more information on a criminal investigation), and it could have said, ‘no way will I accept a delay of three months.’ During these three months, the kids in question suffered, and their rights were violated every day by the community.”

He said perhaps in this case, child authorities should have seized the children immediately at the first sign of trouble, and then investigated whether they could be returned to the community.

“Of course, it’s not a decision taken lightly; it’s difficult, and after the fact it’s easy to say they should have been taken away,” Frémont said.

He admitted, however, that even if child protection authorities had acted more quickly, they still might not have been able to prevent the group’s flight. He said the community acted fast — moving out three days after it became clear the children might be removed.

The Lev Tahor members left for Chatham-Kent, Ont. There, Ontario courts ruled against a Quebec court order to place 14 of the children in foster care. Child services in Chatham-Kent also refused an order to remove all 134 children from the community. The community is adept at uprooting to evade authorities. It established in Ste-Agathe after the group’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, was convicted of kidnapping and deported from the U.S. back to his home country of Israel. The group uprooted again last year to Guatemala, after just a few months in Chatham-Kent. Most community members still live in Guatemala.

Thursday’s report recommended Quebec swiftly forge an agreement with Ontario for youth court cases to be recognized by both provinces. Currently, Quebec has similar agreements with the eight other provinces. Picard said it’s possible the children would have been immediately returned to Quebec if they had fled to any province other than Ontario.

The report also recommended that the province develop a guide on best clinical and administrative practices for youth protection interventions within sects or “closed communities,” and that the guide be widely distributed to all concerned parties.

It recommended better co-ordination between youth protection officials, the courts, and other authorities for such cases.

“This must not happen again,” Frémont said. “Our role is to provide Quebec with a wake-up call, and that’s what we’re doing. We dearly hope this will not happen again.”

Denis Baraby, the head of the department of youth protection for the Laurentians region, admitted his organization waited too long to act in this case.

“I agree with what the commission said,” he said. “At some point we should have put our foot down, and said, ‘we’re going ahead.’ I accept this report very well.”

Baraby said it’s very easy to second-guess the work that was done at the time, knowing that the result was that the children were taken away from the province, but that was not something that was foreseen at the time. He added that in this case, there were many partners investigating different angles of the sect’s activities, and there was pressure to co-operate with all the interested parties.

He said he’s pleased the report reiterates the authority of child protection officials to act, even if doing so could harm the investigation of a criminal case.

However, even if officials had acted faster, he’s not sure the result would have been different.

“I don’t know if we could have succeeded in preventing them from leaving,” Baraby said, adding that the public also has a role to play in helping youth protection officials. In this case, if neighbours had notified police that the group was boarding buses to Ontario, they might have been stopped.

“The welfare of a child is everyone’s business, and in this case, there were neighbours, too,” Baraby said “We need co-operation from everyone.”

Lucie Charlebois, the minister for public health and youth protection, welcomed the report Thursday and said the government is already taking steps to improve the situation. She pledged to undertake negotiations with the government of Ontario to put in place an agreement to recognize youth protection judgments.