DSWD, police in Cebu defy court order to release Lumad child to her father

Despite the closure of the Salugpongan schools for the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) in Mindanao, learning continues even in makeshift classrooms at the evacuation center in the United Church of Christ of the Philippines’ Haran compound in Davao City. Photo taken in July 2019 by BING GONZALES

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 12 March) – Various groups have called for the release of a Lumad child from Mindanao from the custody of the Department of Social Welfare (DSWD) and Philippine National Police regional offices in Cebu City after the two agencies ignored a court order to reunite her with her father.

The Cebu City Regional Trial Court Branch 20, acting on a habeas corpus petition filed last March 4 by the child’s father, Lope, ordered Thursday the release of the minor.

The child was among the 19 Lumad students who were “rescued” during a police operation from a “bawkit” school at the University of San Carlos in Balamban, Cebu City last Feb. 15. They had sought refuge there after schools for Lumad in Mindanao were closed for being accused as fronts for communist indoctrination.

In a statement Thursday demanding the child’s release, the Save Our Schools Network said they accompanied the father who went to DSWD-7 to fetch his child bringing along the court order, but elements of the Philippine National Police Region (PNP) 7 blocked them.

The group said four police cars, seven policemen, four members of Task Force Kasaligan surrounded the DSWD office and threatened arrest, compelling them to leave.

The court, in granting the petition, said: “No matter how respondents wish to characterize the Lumad child’s confinement at DSWD, the fact remains that she does not have freedom of movement, she cannot see anyone from outside (not even her own father) without the approval of respondents, and she does not have freedom and privacy of communication. The Court cannot see how these deprivations of her constitutional rights are in the Lumad child’s best interest.”

The court said the Parental Capability Assessment Report on the father “does not merit any consideration.”

“It strains credulity to see it as a fair assessment of the Lumad father’s parenting capability since it is based solely on information provided by people who have not seen him for a long time,” it said.

The assessment, which described the father as a neglectful parent, was done by the Office of the Municipal Social Welfare and Development in Pitogo, Zamboanga del Sur.

The court added: “Where the respondents see neglectful behavior, the Court sees a father asserting his parental authority over his minor. Moreover, if DSWD-7 and PRO-7 truly believe that the alleged lack of information on the whereabouts of the child’s mother is another indicator of neglectful parental behavior on the part of the father, then this Court hopes for the sake of single parents who also do not know the whereabouts of their former partners that the DSWD-7 and PRO-7 do not see them as neglectful parents as well.”

On respondents’ position that the father’s alleged failure to show that he has a permanent source of income further shows his unfitness as a parent, the court said it “finds this position disturbing.”

“Is poverty now a disqualifying factor for parental authority? In any case, the Lumad father has alleged in his petition that he has been supporting his child by sending P1,000 to P2,000 a month directly to her or through her teachers. It appears to the Court that DSWD-7 and PRO-7 consider the Lumad father’s reticence in providing personal details as proof of his unfitness as a parent. But maybe DSWD-7 and PRO-7 should also consider another perspective: it could be that the Lumad father’s reticence is just a sign of his distrust to the agencies in view of the continued confinement of his daughter at DSWD. The last time this Court checked, distrust of authority figures is not a ground for depriving someone of their child’s custody.”

The court also said that “bare allegations alone” that the father is a CPP/NPA member cannot deprive him of “such a fundamental right as parental authority over his child.”

In a press release after the raid on USC, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Debold Sinas said the 19 Lumad students were transferred to Cebu City from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran Evacuation Center in Davao City in 2018 by a teacher from the Salugpongan Community Learning Center only known as “Michelle” allegedly without the “knowledge and consent of the parents.”

Sinas said the 19 “rescued” minors were brought from different parts Mindanao by members of the Salugpongan school “purportedly to undergo alternative learning” but were actually “undergoing some form of radicalization and revolutionary warfare indoctrination.”

But in a press conference at UCCP Haran last February 25, Lorena Mandacawan, a parent of one of the students said they consented to sending their children to study in Cebu after the government forcibly closed their school in their hometown. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)