"Worse than prison": Why Filipino minors' centers are the scene of abuse

Abuse allegations by inmates of youth detention centres in Philippines.
The crime of Jerry, an 11-year-old Filipino? Violating the curfew laws of minors after fleeing violence at home. His punishment? A stay in a detention center for the youth, where he says to have suffered sexual abuse.

These places called "Houses of Hope" are officially intended to rehabilitate minors in "conflict with the law" but many voices denounce a "hell" where children are treated like animals in cages.

Jerry Sanchez, who had run away from a father who beat him in the absence of his Kuwaiti-employed mother, should never have been placed in the center because of his young age, but the authorities did not know where he was to send.

And soon, rights defenders warn, thousands of other children could end up in these overcrowded and sometimes violent "Houses" because of a proposed law to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 years.

Jerry recounts how, in the middle of the night, he was pulled from his bed, driven into the bathroom, and assaulted by older boys, like him, held in a decrepit center in Manila. "I felt so dirty, it was the first time it had happened to me," he recalls.

Six months after his release, he is not recovering from his trauma. "I cannot forget the sexual abuse".

Juvenile delinquency centers are for adolescents over the age of 15, or younger juveniles who commit serious crimes such as murder. Children also land there when their legal guardians are unavailable.

"Not for children"

Rights advocates, former residents and authorities denounce the living conditions in these misnamed "Houses of Hope", which are likely to get worse if the new law is adopted.

"The possibilities of abuse will be greater because the government is not ready," warns Melanie Ramos-Llana of the Child Rights Network Philippines, denouncing the lack of staff and rehabilitation programs. "Do not put children in, especially very young children, prisons or detention centers are not places for children".

The legislation is a key element of President Rodrigo Duterte's draconian anti-crime policy, with the reinstatement of the death penalty and the campaign against drugs that has left thousands dead.

Since the mid-term elections in May, the head of state's allies have dominated the Congress and promised to advance his plans at the opening of the parliamentary session on Monday.

For rights advocates, the conditions of detention in many "Houses" are similar, if not worse, to those of adult prisons.

"Children are being held like caged animals," says father Shay Cullen, president of the PREDA Foundation, who helps boys like Jerry. "These are infernal places with inhuman conditions".

Children who have testified about abuses in custody with AFP, including Jerry, are identified by pseudonyms as they are or were minors.

Justin Paras, 17 when he was placed in a center in Manila in 2017, says he was beaten by other boys on the pretext that he broke the rules.

"That bad"

"They were punching us in the chest, belly and sometimes on the chin, it was so bad," he recalls. "Over there, I learned to be insensitive because of what they had done to me and I wanted revenge."

The archipelago has 55 Government "Houses of Hope", far less than the 114 that the Philippines would need to properly deal with juvenile delinquents.

According to official statistics, only eight meet the standards of one social worker for every 25 children, one bed per child, balanced meals, clothes, toiletries and educational programs.

"We have seen homes worse than prisons, they have no program," testified in January before a senatorial commission Tricia Oco, director of the Government Council for the Justice and Welfare of Minors.

Fifteen-year-old Tristan Martinez was initially relieved when he was transferred from an adult prison to a Manila "House" because of drug charges he claims were fabricated.

"I thought it would be great at home, but it was also a prison, a children's prison."

The centers where the three boys resided objected to AFP's requests for visits.

The Ministry of Social Protection does not monitor inter-prison abuse, but says that institutions where security standards are not respected must be "held accountable".

Abuse allegations by inmates of youth detention centres in Philippines.
Study

In 2006, the Philippines had raised the age of criminal responsibility from nine to 15 years, which had been hailed as progress.

But Rodrigo Duterte says it benefits drug traffickers who use minors as small hands.

The dysfunctions of the system can be explained by the lack of funding and monitoring of policies, as well as the authorities' preference for detention rather than community service. "In reality, detention is the first resort," says Rowena Legaspi, director of the Center for Children's Legal Rights.

Jay Mark Chico, director of the "Glimmer of Hope" center in the north of the archipelago, says that it was initially planned for 60 children.

But they are crowded behind bars, sleeping three per bed, while others lie on the floor. The daily food budget is 33 pesos per child (0.50 euro).

Nevertheless, Nathan Andres, 21, convicted of rape while still a minor, is "grateful" for staying there. "I never thought I could study."

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Detention centresHouses of HopeJuvenile delinquency centersChildrens Rights