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Judge scolds Lev Tahor families in custody case

Judge scolds Lev Tahor families in custody caseMembers of the Lev Tahor walk down a street in Chatham, Ont., on March 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

TORONTO - Families from an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect who fled the country last month in the midst of a child custody case were chided by an Ontario judge on Friday for not allowing the country's courts to do their work.

Superior Court Justice Lynda Templeton — who will be deciding whether the children in the case should be reunited with their parents or remain in foster care — told the members of the Lev Tahor community that she was concerned about the kid's legal rights, not their religious affiliation.

"Your children are not Lev Tahor children to me, they are just children," she said in Chatham, Ont. "I don't see them as religious entities or gender entities. I do not see them as any other entity than small human beings that have rights."

The appeal being heard by Templeton relates to an order by an Ontario judge, who upheld a Quebec court order that forced 14 children into foster care. Certain families in the community face unproven allegations of mistreatment, forced marriages and child marriages.

A previous session of the appeal had been disrupted last month when it was discovered the families involved in the custody case had fled, which prompted Templeton to order the apprehension of all the children.

Six children were stopped in Trinidad and Tobago and were brought back to Canada, and two were taken into custody at the Calgary airport. Six others remain in Guatemala, where they are reportedly seeking refugee status.

On Friday, Templeton allowed parents supervised access to the children who were in care over the weekend. A 17-year-old girl, however, was released from care.

"Because of the parents' own conduct in fleeing, following apparently the leadership of their community, that access has to be supervised because I cannot trust that you will not take off again," Templeton said.

"I want nothing more than for you to see your children and to have your own community in a healthy, safe, protected environment exercising all the rights we have in this country."

The appeal was being heard in Chatham while detention reviews for three Lev Tahor community members were conducted simultaneously in Toronto.

In those cases, two men and woman — all Israeli citizens— were ordered to remain in custody after the Immigration and Refugee Board found they weren't likely to leave Canada voluntarily if released.

The trio were among six Lev Tahor members arrested in Chatham on Wednesday when the Canadian Border Services Agency descended on the community's housing complex.

The raids came just two days before Templeton was to resume hearing the appeal in the child custody case that has thrust the deeply religious community into the national spotlight.

That timing of the raids was suspect, the lawyer for the trio suggested at the detention reviews.

Guidy Mamann said he had been working with the community and a CBSA director in Windsor, Ont., for days to co-ordinate the planned surrender of certain individuals who had issues with their status in the country.

Yet, he said, the raids took place despite those careful negotiations, rattling the entire community in the process.

"We wanted to avoid a raid, we were about a day or two away from getting that done," he said.

"Today is probably the most important day in the schedule for Lev Tahor, today they appeal the decision that affects the custody of their children... And two days (before), they come to the community and they raid the community and completely derail the schedule that we had."

The IRB member who presided over the detention reviews acknowledged the troubles the Lev Tahor community was facing, but said the child custody case was "not relevant" to his proceedings.

While Andrew Laut noted Mamann's efforts to have the members turn themselves in, he said it wasn't unusual for CBSA to raid the community as they did.

Laut found Avraham Kabaz Kashani, 39, Odel Malka, 30, and Yochanan Lauer, 19, had each flouted immigration rules multiple times and were without permanent legal status in Canada.

Of the three others arrested at the same time, two had been released with conditions, while a third — an American citizen — returned to the U.S.

The review heard Kabaz Kashani first came to Canada on a temporary resident visa in 2000, made multiple failed attempts to gain legal status and once his avenues for appeal were exhausted, was ordered out of the country in 2007.

He did not leave voluntarily, nor did he directly contact authorities about his situation before he was arrested this week, Laut noted.

"I give that pattern of behaviour over an extended period of time, over a matter of more than a decade more weight than I give efforts that were made over the last few weeks to bring you back into contact with immigration officials," Laut said.

For his part, Kabaz Kashani told the hearing that he didn't leave the country when originally asked to because his wife had just had a child.

"I didn't run and I didn't hide. I stayed in the same house. I didn't change my name," he said in Hebrew through an interpreter. "We stayed at home. We said 'If they want to take us, they will take us.'"

In Malka's case, the detention review heard that she first came to Canada in 2000 as a minor, was removed, returned again in 2001 and made a refugee claim and other attempts to stay in the country. She was removed a second time in 2012, but somehow returned again.

Malka could apply for what's known as a "pre-removal risk assessment" which could postpone her departure from Canada for 10-12 weeks.

In Lauer's case, however, a removal date of April 10 was issued right after Laut ordered the young man to remain in custody.

Lauer, who first came to Canada in 1999 and now has three children of his own, may apply for a stay of that removal order, his lawyer said.

— With files from BlackburnNews.com.

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