Lev Tahor children speak out for the first time

Three of the children at the heart of a case involving the removal of 14 kids from the controversial Lev Tahor sect have spoken out for the first time, in two handwritten letters sent to the Toronto Star.

The letters mark the first time children or parents who are the subject of the action have spoken publicly. A 17-year-old, who has an infant daughter herself, sent scans of letters handwritten by herself and two other children, expressing their fear and confusion about the ongoing litigation surrounding their families.

“When children are removed from their parents, it is because they are in danger. But my daughter and siblings are in no danger at all! How will the damage ever be able to be corrected should this ever happen? My heart’s cry must be heard,” the 17-year-old mother wrote in the five-page note.

The identities of all of the children are shielded by a publication ban laid by an Ontario judge, who is currently deliberating about whether or not to uphold a Quebec court order for their removal.

Quebec authorities have documented what they say is evidence of neglect, psychological abuse, poor dental and physical health and sub-standard education. A transcript of testimony from three social workers who spoke at the Quebec trial said that many of the women in the community suffered from a foot fungus because they were not permitted to remove their socks, even at night.

The social workers, whose identities are also covered by a publication ban, said sect leaders exert extreme control over all members. One said that children were given melatonin, a natural sleep aid, to keep them calm. The Quebec Children’s Aid Society was concerned about the potential for a group suicide.

About 40 families — more than 150 individuals — in the Lev Tahor community fled Quebec for Chatham-Kent in advance of the court order, moving into a cluster of houses on the outskirts of the southern Ontario town.

The emailed notes also contained an offer to interview the 17-year-old, however her lawyer — Gerri Wong, of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, part of the attorney general’s ministry — instructed her not to speak with the media after becoming aware of the letter, according to community spokesman Mayer Rosner.

“On one side she wants to cry out to the public, but from the other side she doesn’t want to go against her lawyer,” Rosner said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Rosner noted that they have been visited regularly by officials from Chatham-Kent Children’s Services during their two-month stay.

“If these children were in danger they would apprehend them,” Rosner said.

The email also includes a letter from a Montreal dermatologist, Dr. Rachel Rubinstein, who wrote that she examined 61 people in the sect and found the fungus.

“These are typical clinical problems I routinely encounter in my dermatologic practice,” she wrote. “It is important that I emphasize, unequivocally, that these problems do not reflect parental neglect or abuse.”

The package also includes a letter written by two other girls subject to the action, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old.

“For the past two months, our house has become like a battlefield. Our parents spend so many hours with lawyers, we are surrounded with media so many times,” they wrote. “We feel that the world has become upside down. Why should happy children, born to beloved good parents, be taken to foster care?”

The matter was heard in court Jan. 10, where Ontario Court of Justice judge Stephen Fuerth listened to arguments from Loree Hodgson-Harris, lawyer for Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, as well as two lawyers representing the Lev Tahor families — Wong, and Windsor lawyer Chris Knowles.

Knowles, who represents the family of the 15- and 16-year-olds, said he had no prior knowledge that the letters were going to be sent.

“I have asked the clients to retract the letters that they sent,” said Knowles. “Because Justice Fuerth has reserved his decision, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be making these comments right now at this point.”

The 17-year-old is receiving separate representation because she has a child herself. Since she is over the age of 16, the Ontario authorities are not including her in their application; however, a foster family has been found in Quebec that will take both the infant and her mother.

“On me they give up, because I am already 17 years old. But they want to take away my baby, from her beloved mother arms! Why? I really don’t know,” she wrote in the letter.

The 17-year-old mother wonders, in the letter, what will become of her marriage, to a man who is substantially older than she and is also a member of the Lev Tahor community.

“Our darling baby has a warm home — a mother and a father living in beautiful harmony. And what? The CAS wants to destroy it for her? What rudeness is this, child protection or child abuse???” she wrote in the letter.

The judge is scheduled to rule Feb. 3 as to whether the children will be returned to Quebec.