DSWD urged to rescue minors still with ‘cult’
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Monday called on the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to intervene in “rescuing” minors still under the custody of Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), whose leaders face kidnapping and child abuse charges.
Hontiveros expressed hope that the involvement of the DSWD as pledged by Secretary Rex Gatchalian would lead to the minors’ rescue and eventual transfer from the group’s compound in upland Kapihan village of Barangay Sering in Socorro town, Surigao del Norte province.
“I hope [DSWD custody] will eventually lead to the rescue of the other residents of Kapihan. Their testimonies are vital in our quest to make the leaders of this cult answerable, as well as to convince the other remaining members to eventually leave the organization,” she said.
“The minor witnesses have already called on their fellow youth members of SBSI to go down from the mountain community; we hope they would heed these calls,” Hontiveros added.
The senator made the statement as two Senate committees are set to resume their joint inquiry into the alleged crimes and human rights abuses committed by SBSI, led by its president, 22-year-old Jey Rence Quilario.
Hontiveros expressed relief that the DSWD and the Interagency Council Against Trafficking had taken custody of “nine to 10” minor members of SBSI, who, she said, may have suffered similar traumatic experiences as earlier revealed by other witnesses.
The intervention of the DSWD was sought after a number of minor witnesses testified on SBSI’s alleged nefarious activities, which include forced marriages and rape of minors, child labor in the formation of private armies, as well as alleged theft of members’ cash aid under the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.
In Thursday’s first hearing, Quilario asked the Senate panels to present three minors as his own witnesses purportedly to dispute the allegations of the escaped members, but this was blocked by DSWD officials since the minors lacked prior assessment by welfare workers.
Expressing relief over the bigger role the DSWD is now taking on the controversy, Hontiveros called on the DSWD to provide the minor members of the SBSI with “standard of care required for their protection and eventual reintegration” including their psycho-social needs.
The senator clarified that while she welcomed suggestions that the next joint hearing be conducted at the SBSI’s mountain community in Kapihan village of Socorro town, this proposal suffers from issues on “proper timing.”
“We are aware that the barangay and [Sangguniang Kabataan] elections are upcoming, and it is important that in some exercises such as this require proper timing,” she said, hinting that the SBSI controversy purportedly involved political rivalry among community leaders.
Holding the Senate hearing in Kapihan village also involves security concerns, Hontiveros said, citing testimonies from officials of the National Bureau of Investigation that the SBSI has “members who are armed and who are ready to fight.”
“One of the witnesses, Kent, who became a ‘Soldier of God’ admitted that they laid down traps to prevent the entry and inspection of the [Department of Environment and Natural Resources]; such hostile action raises suspicion on the real motives of the SBSI leaders,” she said. INQ