Members of Lev Tahor are used to running away from trouble.
The small ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect settled in northern Quebec in 2003, after its founder Shlomo Helbrans, a self-proclaimed rabbi, fled Israel and successfully claimed refugee status there on the grounds he would be persecuted back home for his anti-Zionist views. In the mid-1990s, he had been deported back to Israel after serving jail time in New York for kidnapping one of his students.
The insular group of about 200 people — sometimes dubbed "The Jewish Taliban" because women have to wear black garments that cover them from head to toe — follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism and believe in traditional roles for men and women.
They lived a quiet existence in a small town in northern Quebec until 2012, when allegations of child abuse and neglect intensified and Quebec law enforcement and child protection services launched an investigation.
No criminal charges have been laid. Lev Tahor leaders have long maintained they do not abuse their children and say the government is going after them for their religious beliefs.
They were back in the news last week, with the publication of a new report from the Quebec human rights commission that slams police and government officials in Quebec and Ontario for failing the Lev Tahor children by not intervening sooner.
But it's too late now anyway, since the group plans to never return from Guatemala, in spite of ongoing immigration and child protection cases.
According to police documents disclosed in 2014 and testimony from ex-members, Lev Tahor leaders subjected children to physical and sexual abuse, including forcing young girls to marry older men, confining them to squalid basements, and beating them when they misbehaved. Quebec officials also say the children were not provided a proper education, and the children could not speak English or French.
At the time, Quebec was ruled by the staunchly secular Parti Quebecois, which commissioned the report and was pushing its controversial Charter of Values bill that would have forbid government employees from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols.
In 2013, the entire group escaped in the night to Ontario a few days after Quebec law enforcement and youth protection services threatened to put some of the children into foster care. Since Ontario is not obligated to enforce child welfare decisions from outside the province, members of Lev Tahor could breathe a sigh of relief. But when Ontario child protection officials started pursuing its own protection orders against the children in 2014, they fled to Guatemala, far out of reach.
But according to the new human rights report, youth protection agencies did not react quickly enough to the child abuse claims — letting 17 months go by from when they learned about the case to when it conducted an investigation. And legal red tape and competing mandates among agencies Ontario and Quebec made it easier for the children to fall through the cracks.
"It appears that other considerations affected the interventions, taking more time, and losing track of the best interest of these children. Freedom of religion cannot - in any circumstances - be used as a pretext for abuse and neglect," the commission's president, Jacques Frémont, said at a press conference in Montreal.
Denis Baraby, head of youth protection for the region in Quebec where Lev Tahor members lived, told reporters that even if authorities had acted quicker, the outcome might not have been different. "I don't know if we could have succeeded in preventing them from leaving." Baraby said.
The report makes several recommendations to agencies in Quebec and Ontario, including that they agree to uphold each other's child protection orders, but Lev Tahor's legal representative in Toronto, Guidy Mamann, told VICE News the report just further proves the group's claims that they do not abuse their children. The reason it took so long for police and child protection to respond, he said, is there was nothing for them to go on in the first place.
"The findings are remarkable because the commission acknowledged that [child protection services] was involved in investigating the Lev Tahor community for 17 months and they still found no evidence they considered actionable. They also confirmed that the police conducted a criminal investigation and the criminal investigation came up empty," he said. According to Mamann, the commission did not contact him or anyone from Lev Tahor for the report.
"That points to the fact that they're not looking for answers. They're looking for someone to blame," he said."They seem determined to continue in this theory that they were being abused, when this is nothing but hocus pocus."
There are currently no members of Lev Tahor left in Canada, he said. Most of them now live in Guatemala.
When they first moved to San Juan La Laguna, a small beach town in Guatemala, last year, Lev Tahor members clashed with the locals over cultural and religious differences. Seeing men and women dressed in all black and speaking Yiddish was a new and confusing sight.
Mamann, who says he is in touch with the group regularly, said things are better for them now; they are fitting in and want to live a quiet life free from government interference.
"Certainly their children are no longer under attack like they were in Quebec. Now, nobody is telling them that their education system is inadequate or inappropriate," he said. "You cannot compare Guatemala to Canada, a first-world country, but Canada didn't want them."
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