Orphanage questions DSWD closure order, eyes TRO
MANILA, Philippines — The alleged violations cited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in shutting down Gentle Hands Inc. (GHI), an orphanage in Quezon City, are not enough reason to forcibly move the wards out of the facility, according to the establishment’s founder.
“None of those allegations are grounds for removing the children,” GHI executive director Charity Heppner Graff told the Inquirer on Wednesday, a day after the DSWD enforced a cease-and-desist order that was earlier served on Monday night.
A counsel for GHI, who requested not to be named for security reasons before agreeing to speak to the Inquirer, disputed the allegations hurled against the orphanage, noting there was also no prior notice given when the DSWD served the closure order on May 22.
The department, whose actions against GHI were explained during a Palace briefing on Tuesday, cited alleged violations committed by the establishment, such as failing to comply with the fire safety code, producing learning modules without the approval of the Department of Education, allowing an “unsupervised” visit by a foreigner, and overcrowding.
No grace period
But according to the GHI lawyer, there was a March 2023 document showing the findings and recommendations by the DSWD on GHI—and also indicating the progress being made by the orphanage in complying with those recommendations.
“It was Saturday (May 20) when (Social Welfare) Secretary Rex Gatchalian inspected [the facility] and by Monday night, the cease-and-desist order was implemented,” the lawyer said in a phone interview. “We only found out about it when they were trying to get the kids already… There was no notice beforehand that ‘if you fail to comply with our recommendations’—let’s say, within 30 days—‘we will have to issue a cease-and-desist order.’ No such thing happened.”
GHI is now considering going to court to seek a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the DSWD’s action, which shuttered the orphanage for the first time in its 20 years of operations, the lawyer added.
As to the alleged fire code violation, the lawyer said, GHI had a renewed and existing fire safety permit which is up for renewal every year. The lawyer admitted, however, that during Gatchalian’s visit on Saturday a chair was left blocking the fire exit.
‘Overcrowding’ long known
“If it’s a valid citation—questioning why there was a chair blocking [the fire exit]—we can comply with that. But does it already necessitate a cease-and-desist order?” the lawyer asked, adding that GHI officials had already showed the DSWD their fire safety certificate during a meeting held on Tuesday.
As to the overcrowding, the lawyer said, the DSWD had long been aware that GHI was sheltering 149 children. “It’s not something they just saw,” the counsel said. “Since they already know that the GHI had 149 children, why didn’t they close it down back then? They could have just [told us] to reduce the number of children we are taking care of.”
The DSWD had noted that the facility could only accommodate around 80 wards. It mainly cited the orphanage for alleged violation of Republic Act No. 7610 or the law against child abuse, exploitation and discrimination, and for failure to comply with the “minimum standards for residential facilities for children.”
But the GHI lawyer questioned the citation of the law, saying the closure order also did not fully explain the nature of the complaint.
“If there are no verified complaints to speak of, at most [our case] warrants an investigation [first]. It is the fundamental right of the accused… the right to examine the evidence [being used as basis of the complaint], confront whoever the complainant is, so [GHI officials] can intelligently defend themselves,” the lawyer said, adding:
“To be honest with you, the challenge now would be more on the displacement of the children, and on whether Gentle Hands could get them back. I don’t know what type of trauma or damage this may have caused on the children.”