MONTREAL — Quebec youth protection officials say an unspecified number of children who were with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor have recently returned to the province.
Myriam Sabourin, a spokeswoman for the regional health authority in the Laurentians region, north of Montreal, confirmed Thursday the children are under the authority's care. Citing privacy concerns, Sabourin declined to say how many children have returned and what services are being provided.
Lev Tahor created headlines five years ago, when Quebec youth protection services investigated allegations of child neglect in the community of about 200 people — half of them children — in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que.
A 2013 probe concluded that the community's housing was inadequate, the children's health needs were being neglected and they were not receiving a proper education, as most of them could speak only Yiddish. There were also allegations of underage marriages.
As a Quebec court ordered that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care in November 2013, sect members fled overnight, settling first in the southwestern Ontario region of Chatham-Kent. After Ontario courts took up the case, the group uprooted again, and by the summer of 2014 they were almost all in Guatemala.
There were reports the group had moved again in 2017, settling in Chiapas, a southern province in Mexico bordering Guatemala.
Lev Tahor spokesmen have previously denied allegations of mistreatment, though they acknowledge children are subject to a strict religious upbringing.
News of the children's return to Quebec comes as Yeshiva World News reported Wednesday that five members of the sect — identified as the current leadership group — were arrested in Mexico. That is where the sect's founder, Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in June 2017.
David Ouellette, who has followed the Lev Tahor situation as Quebec director for research and public affairs at the Jewish advocacy group CIJA, said he has not been able to independently confirm the arrests.
"However, if it turns out they have actually taken place, we hope that it could foretell the dissolution of this sect," Ouellette said Thursday. "And we hope the children who have been caught in this sect for far too long can be brought back to a secure family environment."
Helbrans founded Lev Tahor — which translates to "pure heart" in Hebrew — in the early 1980s in Israel before relocating to New York in the early 1990s.
After a conviction on a kidnapping charge, he was deported to Israel. He returned across the Atlantic to Canada, where he claimed refugee status and settled in the Laurentians. His sect established itself there for about a decade before attracting the attention of provincial authorities.
Quebec authorities were tight-lipped Thursday about the children and wouldn't say where in Quebec they are living. Sabourin said religious and language considerations were factored into the assistance being provided. "They are kids who are very distinctive given their culture, so it's part of the what we've kept in mind when offering the services," she said.
She added if other young sect members were to eventually return, the agency is ready to provide services.
The Canadian Press