An American couple arrested and detained for human trafficking and child abuse was released on Tuesday after charges against them were thrown out by the Office of the City Prosecutor for insufficiency of evidence.
Released after 18 days in detention at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) – Bohol were Matthew and Dalisay Dwinells including their assistant, RoselemÂ Zuniega.
The Dwinells couple and Zuniega were charged for violation of anti-trafficking in persons, child abuse, exploitation, and discrimination which involved 25 minor children and 2 adults following their arrest by NBI agents on October 22, 2016.
The NBI raided a house allegedly used as a children’s shelter in Ligones Street, Purok 2, Barangay Bool, Tagbilaran City which was then suspected to be operated by the Dwinells without proper documents.
Earlier, ZuniegaÂ was ordered released on the ground that his warrantless arrest was unlawful.
Zuniega, who followed the Dwinells to the office of the NBI upon learning of their apprehension, was suddenly arrested by NBI agents on bare allegations by an employee of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who was present during the interrogation.
The American couple was facing the possibility of more than twenty years in prison, fines of more than a million pesos and deportation for allegedly taking children under their custody and operating a shelter for children without registration and license from the DSWD.
In a 29-page joint resolution dated November 7, 2016, Assistant City Prosecutor Julius Cesar found no evidence “even remotely” that the children – 12 boys and 13 girls, along with an adult boy and girl were exploited nor was there “enough evidence or traces of it” that they were abused while under the custody of the Dwinells.
While recognizing the effort of the DSWD and the NBI to protect the children from exploitation and abuse, Cesar admonished the government “to be very cautious also when it comes to the liberty of a person and it’s curtailment, which is sacred and is protected by the Constitution.”
According to the resolution, notwithstanding the fact that the Dwinells does not have a license to operate an orphanage, based on evidence, the purpose of the custody of the children was for their care and sending them to school.
The lack of a licensed social worker, a key requirement for the operation of a children’s shelter kept the granting of a permit from the DSWD that prompted the Dwinells to enroll Zuniega, their cook, driver and all around domestic help to pursue a degree in social work in the International Learning Center in Cortes, Bohol.
In their defense, the Dwinells couple stressed that their lack of license to operate a children’s shelter should not be construed as an attempt to exploit children.
According to the Dwinells, they have been operating for six years with the “full knowledge of the DSWD” with the agency providing them with technical assistance.
The resolution also stressed that there is no evidence to show that the children’s shelter operated by the Dwinells was a “mere front or facade used to cover-up of any illegal act like exploitation of children.”
The resolution also pointed out that the evidence presented by the Dwinells clearly showed that the Street Kids Philippine Mission “is not a secret or underground or clandestine shelter for street children.”
The Street Kids Philippine Mission was registered by the Dwinells with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was constantly in touch with the Area Based Standard Network (ABSNET), an alliance of duly registered social welfare and development organizations and the Local Government Units (LGU’s) where they operated during their entire existence.
The Dwinells strongly disagreed that seeking donations for the children is not the exploitation contemplated by the law but a noble purpose for the support and care of their wards.
The living conditions of the children, according to Prosecutor Cesar “are far from what we perceive as victims of trafficking in persons as contemplated by the law.”
A list of children under their care was provided to Bool Barangay Captain Nestor Mendez showed that 32 kids – 30 from Cebu and 2 from Bohol were enrolled at the Bool Elementary School, Baclayon High School, TESDA, Bohol Institute of Technology International College and the Bohol Island State University (BISU).
Certifications from the school principals of the schools where the children were enrolled attested that they were “behaved, respectful and kind, with good moral character, and even many of them excelled in the class.”
The Dwinells couple who are from New Jersey, USA came to the Philippines sometime in February, 2010 upon the invitation of a pastor friend who was desperately in need of volunteers to act as house parents to street kids taking shelter in his church in Cebu City.
After three years in Cebu, the couple decided to move to Bohol to provide a better environment for the children and settled in Barangay Tinago, Dauis and secured a Mayor’s permit from the LGU.
They transferred to Tagbilaran City after the owner sold the lot where the shelter was located and found a big house rented by a certain Edward Johnson, a foreigner in Barangay Bool.
It was in Bool where the NBI, acting on the complaint of Lilie Ann Acal, Papiasa Bustrillos of the DSWD Bohol Field Office and Cerina Sia, Social Welfare Officer of Tagbilaran City organized a rescue operation of the 27 children.
Before they came to the Philppines, the Dwinells were doing missionary work in Guadalupe, Mexico taking care of children as dorm parents for three and a half years.
Contrary to claims that the Dwinells were cult members, evidence showed that the children regularly attended regular Sunday services at Sovereign Grace Church at Panda Tea Garden Suites in Barangay Dao, Tagbilaran City.
Quoting it’s website, Sovereign Grace Churches claims having 70 churches worldwide where the gospel of Jesus Christ is evangelized and that it’s faithful believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that sinners would be reconciled with God.
The couple was accused by the NBI for violations of Republic Act (RA 10364 known as the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Person Act of 2012 and RA 7610 otherwise known as the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation, and Discrimination Act.
The Dwinells was assisted by their counsel, Atty. Handel Lagunay.
The resolution dismissing the trafficking and abuse complaints against the Dwinells was approved by City Prosecutor Romeo Chatto.Â (Chito M. Visarra)