Jul 9, 2015

Lev Tahor children's best interests not respected by public system: report

July 9, 2015

It took youth protection officials far too long to intervene in the case of 127 children who were part of the Lev Tahor community living 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.

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 move 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 (actors) systematically failed in their role to protect the children, including health services, the education department and youth protection,” Picard said.

Jacques Frémont, the president of the Quebec human-rights commission added 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 Sûreté du Québec.

“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 investigate 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. 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 127 children from the community.

The report recommended Quebec act swiftly to come to an agreement with Ontario so youth court cases can be applied in that province as well. Currently, Quebec has similar agreements with all eight other provinces. Picard said it’s possible the children would have been immediately returned to Quebec if they had fled to any other province.

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 actors.

It recommended better co-ordination between youth protection officials, the courts, and other authorities to act when children are threatened.

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




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