‘Worse than prison’: Abuses in Philippine youth homes

Officially called "Houses of Hope", proponents in the Philippines say such facilities are places for reformation and education, but critics warn they are underfunded and weakly supervised. (AFP)
Updated 22 July 2019

‘Worse than prison’: Abuses in Philippine youth homes

  • Critics slam many of youth detention centers as “hellholes” where children are treated like caged animals
  • A proposed bill will lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12

MANILA: 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 “Houses of Hope,” proponents in the Philippines say such facilities 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, but 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 centers — leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment.
“I felt so dirty. That was the first time it happened to me,” Jerry told 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 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.
Under existing law, Houses of Hope 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 misdemeanours 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 which 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 the legislature that wrapped up last month.
But it is a key plank of President Rodrigo 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 when the session opens on Monday.
But critics insist conditions in many of the facilities 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 Father Shay Cullen, president of PREDA Foundation which helps boys like Jerry.
“These are really hellholes of subhuman conditions,” he added.
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 Houses of Hope nationwide, but this is well short of the 114 the Philippines 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.
Tristan, 15, was relieved when he was transferred to a House of Hope 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 facilities 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.”
The Philippines raised the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 15 in 2006, a move hailed as a step toward humane treatment.
However Duterte has repeatedly attacked the change as hampering police efforts to crack down on underage couriers for drug syndicates.
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 centers but the national government monitors compliance.
Many Houses of Hope struggle with inadequate resources, said Jay Mark Chico, center head in northern Bulacan province.
His facility 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 33 pesos (0.65 USD) per child but was pushing to increase this while building a bigger center to address overcrowding.
Still, there are some that say their time in the centers helped them.
“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 facility.
However 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.”


Bolsonaro to send army to fight huge fires in the Amazon

Aerial picture showing smoke from a two-kilometre-long stretch of fire billowing from the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 24 August 2019

Bolsonaro to send army to fight huge fires in the Amazon

  • Some 370 square kilometers (140 square miles) have burned in northern Paraguay, near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia, said Joaquín Roa, a Paraguayan state emergency official

PORT VELHO, Brazil: Under international pressure to contain fires sweeping parts of Brazil’s Amazon, President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday authorized use of the military to battle the huge blazes while thousands took to the streets to protest his environmental policies.
Brazilian forces will deploy starting Saturday to border areas, indigenous territories and other affected regions in the Amazon to assist in putting out fires for a month, according to a presidential decree authorizing use of the army.
The military will “act strongly” to control the wildfires, Bolsonaro promised as he signed the decree.
The armed forces will collaborate with public security and environmental protection agencies, the decree says.
“The protection of the forest is our duty,” the president said. “We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon. We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different.”
Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who note that the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial for efforts to contain climate change.
As the president spoke, thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the capital of Brasilia demanding the government announce concrete actions to curb the fires. People also banged pots from their homes, a traditional mode of protest in South America.
An Associated Press journalist who traveled to the Amazon region Friday saw many already deforested areas that had been burned.
Charred trees and fallen branches were seen around Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia state, which borders Bolivia. In some instances, the burned fields were adjacent to intact livestock ranches and other farms, suggesting the fires had been managed as part of a land-clearing policy.
A large column of smoke billowed from one fire, and smoke rose from a couple of nearby wooded areas. Life appeared normal in Porto Velho. However, visibility from the windows of an arriving airplane was poor because of smog enveloping the region.
Small numbers of demonstrators gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in Paris, London, Geneva and Bogota, Colombia, to urge Brazil to do more to fight the fires. Larger protests were held in Uruguay and Argentina. Hundreds also protested in Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay have also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields, in many cases set to clear land for farming. About 7,500 square kilometers (2,900 square miles) of land has been affected in Bolivia, Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta said.
A B747-400 SuperTanker arrived in Bolivia and began flying over devastated areas to help put out the fires and protect forests. The US-based aircraft can carry nearly 76,000 liters (20,000 gallons) of retardant, a substance used to stop fires.
Some 370 square kilometers (140 square miles) have burned in northern Paraguay, near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia, said Joaquín Roa, a Paraguayan state emergency official. He said the situation had stabilized.
Close to 20% of the Amazon has already been deforested, said Thomas Lovejoy, a George Mason University environmental scientist.
“I worry that the current deforestation will push past the tipping point leading to massive loss of forest and biodiversity,” Lovejoy wrote in an email to The Associated Press. He said Brazil is “turning its back” on past environmental achievements, including the 1992 Earth Summit, and has proposed infrastructure projects that will accelerate the challenge of climate change.
“Fires are directly burning into the Amazon rainforest and that releases the carbon stored in those trees,” said Doug Morton, a NASA scientist. “The carbon then enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, where it contributes to the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, bringing us a warmer and a drier planet.”
Morton said there is now “an uptick in the pressure against the remaining Amazon forest, to expand agriculture production in areas that are the leading edge in the deforestation frontier.”
Fires are common in Brazil in the annual dry season, but they are much more widespread this year. Brazilian state experts reported nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018.
Just over half of those fires have occurred in the Amazon region. Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest.
US President Donald Trump said Friday that he spoke with Bolsonaro.
“Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before,” Trump tweeted. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!“
In escalating tension over the fires, France accused Bolsonaro of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil. Ireland joined in the threat.
The specter of possible economic repercussions for Brazil and its South American neighbors show how the Amazon is becoming a battleground between Bolsonaro and Western governments alarmed that vast swaths of the region are going up in smoke on his watch.
Ahead of a Group of Seven summit in France this weekend, Macron’s office questioned Bolsonaro’s trustworthiness.
Brazilian statements and decisions indicate Bolsonaro “has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity,” Macron’s office said.
It added that France now opposes the EU’s trade deal “in its current state” with the Mercosur bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel views the fires as “shocking and threatening,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Argentina, which is struggling with rising poverty and austerity measures, has offered to send emergency workers to Brazil and Bolivia to help battle the fires. Chile also offered aid.
The Brazilian government has said European countries are exaggerating Brazil’s environmental problems in order to disrupt its commercial interests. Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, said it was difficult to curb increasing deforestation with limited resources.
“It’s not easy to fight deforestation, our Amazon area is bigger than all of Europe,” he said. “We’ll do what we can to fight this crime.”