Youths bare abuses in ‘Houses of Hope’
MANILA, Philippines — Eleven-year-old Jerry’s crime was breaking curfew laws after fleeing violence at home. His punishment? Being sent to a youth detention center, where he says he endured sexual abuse.
Officially called “Bahay Pag-asa” (House of Hope), proponents say the youth homes are places for reformation and education, but critics slam many of them as “hellholes” where children are treated like caged animals.
Rights’ groups say Jerry should never have been detained under current laws, and warn a proposed bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 will mean thousands more children will be sent to overcrowded and underfunded youth homes — leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment.
“I felt so dirty. That was the first time it happened to me,” Jerry told Agence France-Presse (AFP) as he recalled the night he was pulled from his bed, forced to the bathroom and attacked by older boys also held at a decaying juvenile center in Manila.
“I cannot forget the sexual abuse,” he explained, adding that he left home to escape beatings from his father and ended up sleeping on the streets. His mother works in Kuwait.
For young offenders only
Under existing law, youth centers are primarily to hold young offenders aged 15 to 18.
But charities say younger vulnerable children from troubled homes, like Jerry, are sometimes swept up in the dragnet even for minor misdemeanors and struggle to recover from the experience.
Watchdogs and former wards warn planned legislation to criminalize children as young as 12 and then detain them with older teens and in some cases adults will put those least able to defend themselves at risk.
“There is a higher potential for abuse because the government is not prepared,” said Melanie Ramos-Llana of Child Rights Network Philippines.
“You put more children into Houses of Hope that are not equipped, lack personnel and programs, you will have problems. Jails or detention centers are not places for children,” she added.
Youth advocate Louise Suamen warns mixing youngsters who have committed minor infringements with older criminals could create a “school of crime.”
“If you are a child subjected to this environment, you can learn violence or abusive behavior. If they want to change something… treat detention as the last resort,” explained Suamen of Bahay Tuluyan Foundation.
A bill to give authorities the power to prosecute younger children stalled in the session of Congress that wrapped up last month.
But it is a key plank of President Duterte’s tough-on-crime stance, which includes restoring the death penalty and his internationally condemned drug crackdown that has killed thousands since 2016.
After sweeping May’s midterm polls, Duterte allies dominate Congress and have vowed to advance his agenda in the 18th Congress, which opened on Monday.
But critics insist conditions in many of the youth homes are identical to or worse than the jails adults are sent to.
“Children are detained in these so-called House of Hope like animals in cages,” said Catholic priest Shay Cullen, president of Preda Foundation, which helps boys like Jerry.
“These are really hellholes of subhuman conditions,” he added.
Abused in the centers
Five children previously held in the system, including Jerry, told AFP they suffered abuse in youth centers.
All the boys are identified using a pseudonym because they are minors or were when held.
Justin, who was 17 when he was brought to a youth center in the capital in 2017, said other boys beat him on the pretext he had broken house rules.
“They would punch us in the chest, stomach and sometimes the chin. It was so painful. I learned to be callous there because of what they did to me and I wanted revenge,” he said.
There are 55 government-run Bahay Pag-asa nationwide, but this is well short of the 114 the government has estimated it needs to properly house troubled juveniles.
According to official data, only eight comply with social welfare rules.
These guidelines include having one social worker for every 25 children, providing one bed per resident along with nutritious meals, clothing, toiletries and rehabilitation programs.
“Some of the Houses of Hope we saw were worse than prisons. They have no programs,” Tricia Oco, executive director of the government’s Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, told a Senate inquiry in January.
‘Prison for children’
Tristan, 15, was relieved when he was transferred to a Bahay Pag-asa in Manila after being held in an adult jail on a drug trafficking charge he said police fabricated.
“I thought it would be a lovely home. But it was also a prison, a prison for children,” he told AFP.
The centers where Jerry, Justin and Tristan stayed denied AFP’s requests for a visit.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development said it did not monitor peer abuse in centers, but institutions that failed to meet standards should be “held responsible.”
Congress raised the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 15 in 2006, a move hailed as a step toward humane treatment.
But Mr. Duterte has repeatedly attacked the change as hampering police efforts to crack down on underage couriers for drug syndicates.
Gaps in the system
The gaps in the system stem from insufficient funding, weak congressional oversight and authorities’ preference for detention over community-based programs, advocates say.
“In reality, detention becomes the first resort,” said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center.
The current law tasks provinces and cities with building and operating the youth homes but the national government monitors compliance.
Many youth homes struggle with inadequate resources, said Jay Mark Chico, center head in northern Bulacan province.
His center was built to accommodate 60 children but now houses 144—squashed into rooms behind metal bars where some must sleep on the floor.
Chico told AFP the province had a daily food budget of P33 per child but was pushing to increase this while building a bigger center to ease overcrowding.
Still, there are some that say their time in the centers helped them.
‘We still have value’
“I am so grateful because I never imagined I could still pursue my studies,” said 21-year-old Nathan Andres, who was detained as a juvenile for rape but has been allowed to serve out his sentence in the Bulacan youth home.
But Andres, who wants to become a teacher, says targeting 12-year-olds is not the answer.
He mused: “We are like the flowers we craft from old papers. People think we are garbage, useless. But actually we still have value.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.