CHATHAM, Ont. – A judge must take into consideration a proposed secular charter in Quebec when ruling whether to enforce a court order that would see children from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect who left the province returned there to foster care, the group’s lawyer said Friday.
Members of the Lev Tahor community were under investigation by social services in Quebec late last year for issues including hygiene, children’s health and allegations that the children weren’t learning according to the provincial curriculum.
Court has heard that most of the community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts in the middle of the night while that investigation was ongoing and settled in Chatham, Ont.
Child welfare authorities in Chatham are now asking the court to enforce an order subsequently made in Quebec that would see 14 children placed in foster care. The order is being appealed in Quebec.
The Ontario judge is set to rule on Feb. 3.
He must keep in mind a proposed charter of values looming in Quebec, said Chris Knowles, a lawyer for the families. The charter would restrict the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs by public-sector workers.
“When we’re talking about religious rights what you’re being asked to do is to send these children back to a province which I submit has chosen to place religious rights beneath other rights,” Knowles said. “So I do think it’s relevant to your determination of what is in these children’s best interests.”
Knowles argued that the children’s aid society in Chatham has no legal jurisdiction to ask the court to enforce Quebec’s order, as he said their powers are limited to starting a child protection investigation of their own.
There is no specific avenue under the Child and Family Services Act for the Ontario court to enforce Quebec’s order, said Chatham-Kent Children’s Services’ lawyer Loree Hodgson-Harris, but she pointed to other legislation under which she said the Ontario court could make an order.
“We can’t allow in this country people to just pick up and leave because they don’t like the process or they don’t want to comply and it was pretty clear form the evidence that they weren’t going to comply,” she said.
The community denies any mistreatment of the children and says they were already planning to move out of Quebec.
But Hodgson-Harris, said the evidence clearly shows the group fled to escape the Quebec court’s jurisdiction.
“The state of the families’ homes obviously implied that the departure of the families was precipitous,” she said. Some jewelry and credit cards were found left behind, and one coffee maker was left on, she said.
The hearing was previously adjourned on Dec. 23 so that one of the children — a teenage mother — could be represented by a separate lawyer. Chatham-Kent Children’s Services’ lawyer said they are not asking the court to order the return of the teenage mother.
The Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart,” came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.
Children’s aid has intervened with the community in the past, court heard through transcripts of social workers’ testimony. Social workers say their concerns about the community are that it is almost completely isolated from the outside world and the children are terrified of others who are not modestly dressed or “pure.” The leader makes all decisions about the community, a social worker said, and some girls are married as teenagers.
Regarding the children in this case, because of a restriction that females in the community cannot remove their socks, one child’s feet were “blue” from the amount of toe fungus, the social worker said. Community members said the infection could be cleared up with coconut oil and they were willing to modify their restriction to allow women to take their socks off at night, the social worker said.