Children deal with abuse, fears of coronavirus in ‘Houses of Hope’

Michelle Abad
Rights groups call for the urgent release of children dealing with abusive conditions in some youth detention centers, now compounded by the coronavirus threat

MANILA, Philippines – The boys sat near a garden outside a house painted pastel yellow. The camera picked up the sound of the breeze that blew bougainvilla leaves behind them. In colorful shirts holding up drawings in crayon, the boys described to the camera how exactly they were tortured.

Spoiled food, spanking, and fist fights are all things they were familiar with. Chores were passed to the newer or younger kids. Sometimes, they woke up to toothpaste squeezed onto their eyes. Other times, bored older boys asked for sex. 

Preda Foundation, a children’s rights organization, supplied Rappler with video testimonies of boys who were transferred from Bahay Pag-asa (House of Hope) detention centers for children in conflict with the law (CICL) to Preda homes. 

The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) mandates local governments (LGUs) to set aside budgets to build Bahay Pag-asa centers which have to be accredited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

The rescued and abused children from Bahay Pag-asa centers – which the foundation requested to keep confidential – were brought to Preda homes, where they underwent therapy. The boys were asked to draw their experiences in the detention centers and explain what the drawings meant.

James*, Adrian*, and Jayjay* are only some of the minors who talked about their experiences of abuse in their respective Bahay Pag-asa centers. Preda president Shay Cullen said they were recorded on April 21.





 

“The children are the most vulnerable as they are weak from malnutrition, racked by asthma, some with tuberculosis and damaged by physical and sexual abuse and hurt. They are jailed in subhuman conditions. Most sleep on concrete floors. They are deprived of education, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, good food, medical help, legal help, entertainment, visitors, without showers and toilets. It is a desperate, dangerous situation,” said Cullen.

“They must be freed at once,” he added.

As of December 2019, there are 75 operational Bahay Pag-asa centers nationwide – 72 of which are managed by LGUs, while 3 are run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) has guidelines on running Bahay Pag-asa centers to ensure protection and service programs for CICLs, but only 14 Bahay Pag-asa centers have been fully accredited by the DSWD. The remaining 61 are still “being provided with technical assistance” by regional JJWCs to comply with requirements for accreditation.

Even after years of controversy on conditions inside, children recently released from the detention centers testify about bullying and abuse, perpetrated by staff and other kids who had been there longer. (READ: When ‘Houses of Hope’ fail children in conflict with the law)

Now with the coronavirus pandemic, rights groups are calling for the children’s quick release. The novel coronavirus has already reached some of the country’s overcrowded jails, and there have been similar calls for the urgent release of vulnerable persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). (READ: ‘Takot na takot kami’: While government stalls, coronavirus breaks into PH jails)

Age of criminal responsibility

Since they are below the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) of 15, they are exempt from criminal liability and were easily turned over to Preda Foundation. If the bills lowering the MACR to 12 or 9 years old passed the 17th Congress, the 3 boys could still be where they were today. At least 3 bills are pending with the 18th Congress to lower the MACR. (READ: Children in conflict with the law: Cracks in the Juvenile Justice Act)

In January 2019, JJWC executive director Tricia Oco acknowledged subhuman conditions in many Bahay Pag-asa centers. “We saw mas malala pa sa kulungan – wala silang programs, wala silang beds, wala silang cabinets. Ang mga bata doon, they are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything so ‘yung iba sa kanila, they do self-harm because they’re very bored,” Oco said in a Senate inquiry.

(We saw that the conditions are worse than jails. They don’t have programs, they don’t have beds, and they don’t have cabinets. The children there are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything, so some of them do self-harm because they’re very bored.)

Oco said that no child should be subject to abuse and maltreatment while in youth detention homes. “This is the reason why JJWC continues to support and dialogue with LGUs and assist them through resource augmentation, continuous training, and pilot testing of programs to fully comply with the law, and ensure children are protected,” said Oco.

Shelly Mundano, officer-in-charge of Marikina Youth Home or the city’s Bahay Pag-asa, acknowledged that “misunderstandings” occur among the children in their facility, like fighting over food or belongings. She said that when this happens, the staff make the effort to iron out the situation immediately.

“We explain to them the house rules of the shelter – getting along with others, understanding everyone’s personalities, helping each other, and understanding the reason they were brought to Bahay Pag-asa,” Mundano said in Filipino.

She added, also in Filipino, “They are given a chance to express their feelings or issues. And if there are misunderstandings, we talk to both parties and let them understand the causes of their problems, and then we help them resolve the problems.”

Coronavirus threat

Children’s rights organization Save the Children consulted children staying in a Bahay Pag-asa in Metro Manila to understand how they are coping with the coronavirus lockdown. Apart from being afraid of the virus infecting them and their families at home, they also deal with the sadness of not being allowed visits as often as before. 

Access to information is limited. The children also worry about their parents who are out of work. While some families are able to call, Save the Children reported that most of the CICLs there don’t know how their families are doing.

Less than half of the consulted children also have “no idea” about government response to the pandemic. 

Preda Foundation wrote to chief public attorney Persida Rueda Acosta on April 27 to request that the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) lawyers assigned to children’s cases apply for their release to their parents or to Preda.

Hearings, releases on hold

Since the declaration of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon in March, the hearings of the CICLs in Marikina Youth Home have been suspended, according to Mundano.

Save the Children also confirmed this in their report. “Some children were up for release last March, but issuance of release orders are on hold due to quarantine. Court hearings for CICLs are postponed.” 

The Supreme Court (SC) announced on March 16 that all courts nationwide would have to “dramatically reduce” operations, but that select courts would still remain open to act on urgent matters such as those pertaining to liberty.

“The SC should find a way to be able to continue the hearing of cases because it is the children’s right…These are one of the most marginalized groups of children,” said Save the Children child rights governance manager Melanie Llana.

On April 20, the SC released a circular reiterating 2014 guidelines on urgently releasing PDLs who have completed their minimum penalty or those whose cases are unmoving.

Oco said these guidelines apply to CICLs too, and that the JJWC is coordinating with the High Court, its committee on Family Courts, and the Public Attorney’s Office on the implementation of guidelines for children in conflict with the law. 

“We will look into how [to better] assist the minors, considering the situation is urgent. We must also consider the safety and well-being of the child when he or she reintegrates into the community,” said Oco. 

On calls to release vulnerable persons deprived of liberty on humanitarian grounds, the SC has still remained elusive.

Catering to CICLs in a pandemic

On May 6, the JJWC released coronavirus pandemic-centered guidelines for BPAs and other youth care rehabilitation facilities handling children at risk and CICLs. These included information dissemination on COVID-19 and hygiene practices, as well as reporting children who show symptoms of the disease.

They were also designed to ensure that legal rights of children are upheld – visitation and case management should still be conducted through video conferencing and other communication measures. (READ: Pilot courts nationwide can now do virtual hearings for all matters)

Rehabilitative and developmental activities must proceed unhampered for the children, provided physical distancing is observed. Psychosocial support not only includes processing matters related to their crimes, but also anxiety and distress brought on by the crisis.




“The preventive and remedial measures to manage and mitigate the risks related to COVID-19 must be done within proper standards. They must be […] guided by domestic and international child and human rights standards that do not discriminate based on age, gender, disability or social or economic affiliation. All measures must be socially inclusive and sensitive, and access to health care, access to justice are ensured,” said Oco.

While the nation can only hope these guidelines would be fully enforced, the true conditions of some Bahay Pag-asa centers may keep some doubtful these are ideal environments for children in conflict with the law.

Long-standing conditions of abuse continue to haunt children in conflct with the law who now have to deal with added fears of the coronavirus. The boys wish to be able to study and can only hope that no other child goes through what they did. – Rappler.com 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children.

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer with the investigative unit of Rappler. She also covers overseas Filipinos and the rights of women and children.