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 that 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 said 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 age 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 that the 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.
Hellholes of subhuman conditions
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 crackdown on drugs 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 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 the Rev. 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, said 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.
We are like flowers
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 said.
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 said the province has a daily food budget of 33 pesos (65 U.S. cents) per child but is 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.”