‘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.”


China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

Updated 26 January 2020

China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

  • Coronavirus’ transmission ability getting stronger
  • China confirms 1,975 people infected, 56 dead

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday, with more than 2,000 people in China infected and 56 killed by the disease.
Health authorities around the world are racing to prevent a pandemic after a handful of cases of infection were reported outside China, including in Thailand, Australia, the United States and France.
The mayor of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, said he expected another 1,000 new patients in the city, which was stepping up construction of special hospitals.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because much about it is still unknown, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said the incubation period for the virus can range from one to 14 days, during which infection can occur, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS was a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
“According to recent clinical information, the virus’ ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger,” Ma told reporters.
The Lunar New Year holiday, traditionally celebrated by hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling around the country and abroad to see family, began on Friday but has been severely disrupted by the outbreak.
Ma said China would intensify its containment efforts, which have so far included transportation and travel curbs and the cancelation of big events.
The country may extend the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing a meeting hosted by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Hong Kong has six confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping described the situation as “grave” on Saturday.
China confirmed 2,051 cases of infection as of 7 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Jan. 26, while the death toll from the virus remained at 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Health officials in Orange County, California, reported that a third case had been registered in the United States in a traveler from Wuhan, who was in isolation and in good condition.
On Saturday, Canada declared a first “presumptive” confirmed case in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. Australia confirmed its first four cases.
No fatalities have been reported outside China.

WILDLIFE SALES BAN
On Sunday, China temporarily banned nationwide the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society called on China to make the ban permanent.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was working with China to arrange a charter flight for Japanese nationals to return from Wuhan.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown and transport links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.

CANCELLATIONS AND MISTRUST
Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Beijing also postponed the reopening of the city’s schools and universities after the Lunar New Year holiday, state radio reported. Hong Kong had already delayed the reopening of schools to Feb. 17.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the SARS virus eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
Illustrating the extend of disruption to life in China, overall passenger travel declined by nearly 29% on Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, from a year earlier, with air passengers down nearly 42%, a transportation ministry official said.
Many cinemas across China were closed with major film premieres postponed.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Costa Cruises said they had canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before Feb. 2.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the holiday period, has already closed.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of these efforts.