CHATHAM, Ont. - An Ontario judge has issued an emergency order that 14 children from an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect at the centre of a custody case be placed in the care of children's aid, but police said Thursday most of the children have left the country.
Two families whose children were ordered removed from their custody left Canada for Guatemala this week, but some of the travellers were detained in Trinidad and Tobago during a stopover, according to a Lev Tahor member's email to supporters, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
Immigration authorities in Trinidad met Wednesday with Canadian Embassy officials about the case, said Marcia Hope, a spokeswoman for that country's Ministry of National Security.
A judge in Chatham, Ont., ordered that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in the temporary care of Chatham-Kent Children's Services. The order says the agency can ask for assistance from local and provincial police, Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and Peel Regional police, whose jurisdiction includes the Toronto Pearson International Airport.
Chatham-Kent police said Thursday afternoon that 12 of the 14 children named in the emergency order have left the country. They said police and child services are trying to locate the remaining two children.
Community spokesman Uriel Goldman said he did not want to speak for those families, but said he suspected they left because they were afraid their children would be taken away from them.
"If any person have kids just going to think one second," he said. "What going to happen if all of a sudden some authorities say, 'Say goodbye for your children...just forget from your kids forever.'"
Goldman called the child welfare investigation — which lasted more than a year in Quebec before it was brought to court there — political persecution.
"We're talking about innocent people, very responsible parents," he said. "They have no case against them, zero case against them, not in Quebec and not in Ontario...It has to deal with the fact our community is a Jewish religious community who is anti-Zionist who do want to be old fashioned and this create a lot of hate."
A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment on whether Canada is making any efforts to have the Lev Tahor children returned, saying extradition requests are confidential.
Canada Border Services Agency has said it cannot detain anyone without a search warrant.
One legal expert said any kind of extradition proceedings could only occur if someone faced criminal charges.
Two local police officers and four children's aid workers went door to door Wednesday night in the community of homes in Chatham, hours after the court order was made. Goldman said police were looking for the children at the centre of the court case. He said officers looked everywhere in the small homes, from inside washing machines to freezers.
The police officers and child welfare workers stayed at the complex for about 90 minutes and left around 10 p.m. without apprehending anyone.
A provincial police spokesman said they have not yet received a request for assistance from children's aid in Chatham.
A Quebec court originally ordered late last year that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care after the community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in the middle of the night, days after a child welfare agency started a court case against a couple of the families.
The community settled in Chatham, Ont., where a judge found last month that their move from Quebec was made to avoid the custody proceeding there and he ordered that 13 Lev Tahor children be turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec.
The judge didn't include one girl who is both under 18 and a mother of an infant in his order. He delayed enforcement of that order so the families could have a chance to appeal.
That appeal was scheduled to be heard Wednesday in Chatham, but instead Chatham-Kent Children's Services brought an emergency motion that resulted in the order to place the kids in temporary care.
The community member's email said that part of the group was going to Guatemala via Mexico and the other part was travelling via Trinidad.
The email indicated that members of one family are American citizens and the others are Israeli citizens and both families were in Canada on work permits, so they dispute that they should be sent to Canada, instead they're pushing to be allowed to travel on to Guatemala.
Hope said in a statement that the Lev Tahor members are not being detained in Trinidad, as they are free to return to Canada, however officials are holding onto their passports.
They were stopped after immigration officials found "inconsistencies" in the group's statements, Hope said.
The group has also hired a local lawyer, Farai Hove Masaisai, who said Thursday from Port-of-Spain he was still trying to get access to his clients, who he said were being kept in an undisclosed location near the airport.
Hope said Thursday evening that the group is "being accommodated in a hotel of their choice."
However, Masaisai said the nine sect members were being detained.
"They can't leave. They can't come and go as they please. They're being detained," Masaisai said.
"Immigration has a lot of powers, so they could send them anywhere they choose."
The actual appeal of the Canadian court order is now scheduled to be heard April 4.
The Attorney General of Trinidad reportedly said Thursday that three adults and six children from the sect had lost their attempt to prevent being returned to Canada.
The Associated Press reported that the group had filed an emergency petition of habeas corpus after they were stopped en route to Guatemala, but the High Court in Trinidad dismissed their claim.
Officials said the nine were in the custody of airline Westjet pending their return to Canada.
The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart,'' came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.
The community was under investigation for issues including hygiene, children's health and allegations that the children weren't learning according to the provincial curriculum.
Testimony from social workers has highlighted concerns over hygiene, the children's health and some girls being married as teenagers. The group has denied all allegations of mistreatment.
— With files from Colin Perkel and Diana Mehta in Toronto and The Associated Press