DSWD says 22 Gentle Hands orphans missing; lawyer disputes claim
Twenty-two children are still unaccounted for from the private orphanage in Quezon City that was ordered closed earlier this week by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), officials said.
But this account was disputed by a legal counsel of Gentle Hands Inc. (GHI), who spoke on Thursday with the Inquirer on condition of anonymity. The lawyer said that 23 out of the 149 children had been brought to its Bulacan facility even before the “spot inspection” by DSWD officials and the eventual serving of the “cease-and-desist” order.
“From the very start, we have been very transparent,” said the lawyer. “The next morning (Tuesday), we already explained to the DSWD officials that the missing 23 children were in GHI’s Bulacan facility, physically there.”
The lawyer said the 23 children (one child was reportedly taken to a hospital) were brought to Bulacan under its “transition period” in offloading children from the Quezon City orphanage. This was done, the lawyer said, because of the expropriation order from the Department of Transportation which came before the action of the DSWD.
Representatives from the National Authority for Child Care were able to personally check the children in Bulacan on the same day that the children in Quezon City were removed, the lawyer added.
‘Only’ 127 of 149
The lawyer was reacting to a statement from DSWD spokesperson Romel Lopez who said the agency rescued only 127 out of the 149 children reported residing at the GHI home. The orphanage had been ordered closed for alleged violations.
A total of 127 children were taken from Gentle Hands along with some orphanage caregivers, said Lopez. One child was brought to a hospital for his medical needs.
“We are accounting for the others. We would like to know when they were transferred or [if] they were put in our custody,” Lopez added. The department “has reason to believe they are in their facility somewhere in Bulacan,” Lopez said, noting that a DSWD official in Central Luzon has been in “close coordination” with authorities to check on the condition of the children.
The lawyer disputed Lopez’s account, alleging that the DSWD did not count the children and that only 126 children were taken from GHI.
Call for transparency
Other entities have likewise stepped into the dispute. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Association of Child Caring Agencies of the Philippines (Accap) reminded the DSWD to ensure the welfare of the children while dealing with the matter with GHI. Accap also asked for transparency on how the DSWD dealt with GHI, raising alarm over the manner in which it handled the removal of the children.
Accap president Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana, a former CHR commissioner, said it was “alarming” when she received reports on the way DSWD supposedly “rescued” the children from GHI.
Based on reports she received, Gana said there were police in black polo shirts carrying M16 rifles, a detail that was also confirmed by the lawyer of GHI.
“It seems that their response was not commensurate with the alleged infractions of the GHI that would warrant the removal of the children,” Gana said. She also pointed out that the cease-and-desist order did not include that the children under GHI’s care should be removed.
“From what happened, it caused mental and physical trauma to the children,” Gana said, as she also noted that the DSWD should be transparent on each child’s current status after the child was removed from the GHI facility.
Earlier, Social Welfare Secretary Rex Gatchalian said the DSWD issued a cease-and-desist order against the orphanage for several violations, including concerns about overcrowding and sanitation.
The agency conducted a surprise visit to the orphanage last Saturday after a private individual complained that Gentle Hands was violating the Special Protection of Children against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act.
Gatchalian said the DSWD found that aside from a security guard, the orphanage in Quezon City had only five housemaids and there were no houseparents or social workers at the premises at the time.
“At any given time, there should always be a social worker or houseparent inside. Now you’re running an overpopulated facility without a social worker around,” he said.
Gatchalian said inspectors also noticed that the fire exits had been sealed or covered with metal grills. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” the DSWD chief said. “What if an accident happens and the fire exits are sealed? Right there and then, it’s wrong because the ratio of adult supervision or professional supervision to the population is not proportional,” he said.
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