If you visit the child detention centers in Metro Manila and other places in the Philippines, you will see the gaunt faces of bored, frightened, malnourished 10- to 16-year old boys and girls looking out sadly through steel bars. They are prisoners. Their incarceration violates the law that says the children in conflict with the law must have diversion, are not jailed and punished. They should have restorative justice.
The rule of law however is not always implemented in the Philippines. Local governments send children in conflict with the law to jails instead of providing them with decent homes. It is not the end of a brutal punishment, it is the beginning. The children are punished with severe detention in decrepit conditions in overcrowded jail cells where they suffer neglect, deprivation, hunger and are abused by older inmates and sometimes the guards. Some children, especially the girls, endure sexual abuse, rape and beatings.
This mentality of neglect comes from a corrupt government that has no understanding, concern or compassion for the impoverished street children who steal to survive or are used by adult criminals to commit crimes. The adult criminals are not punished, just the children.
Republic Act 10630, which amended the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Law or RA 9344, declares that any child under the age of 15 who commits a serious crime “shall be deemed a neglected child under Presidential Decree No. 603, as amended and the child shall be mandatorily placed in a special facility within the youth care facility or Bahay Pag-asa called Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center. Moreover, repeat offenders, or children who have committed crimes more than three times, would also be considered as neglected children and, as such, must undergo intervention programs supervised by the local social welfare and development officers. The law would impose the maximum penalty for those who exploit children such as syndicates, for the commission of criminal offenses.
None of the children in these jails, called youth centers, or Bahay Pagasa (ironically House of Hope) have been convicted of any crime. Under the law, they should not be charged in court if they are below 15 years of age.
They ought to be in a home if they have been accused with some wrongdoing, however small or big it may be.
Congress has finished debating the merits of amending the law and while some are for declaring that children ought to be tried as criminals at nine years old, this has been softened to make it 12 years old. This compromise change is being challenged and opposed by Unicef, the Juvenile Justice Welfare Council and many NGOs and professional psychologists who have all made their submissions to the congressional technical working group. The Senate, supposedly wiser and more learned, has not proposed a corresponding bill of its own. Only a few hard-hearted senators who see children as criminals are proposing a corresponding law.
The present practice of jailing children under 15 years of age and above is detrimental to the welfare of the children, violates their human rights and causes life-long damage.
Developmental psychologist Dr. Liane Pena Alampay, associate professor at the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University says that “this causes young children to see themselves as criminals and to grow up with a warped and changed understanding of themselves, putting children behind bars [sets]them on a lifelong negative trajectory.”
If there is to be any amendment to the present law that is deemed by many in the Philippines and in the international community as a good positive law, it ought to mandate that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) be the agency that will set up and manage the children’s homes in the country. This will relieve local governments of the obligation to do it. A large increase in its budget is needed for the management and administration of the homes and for the training of professional staff, therapists and counselors and skilled vocational training specialists.
But immediate arrangements ought to be made whereby local governments have to be persuaded to enter into a legal agreement with the DSWD to turn over responsibility for the local Bahay Pagasa to them or to a competent NGO. The local government will fund it but the DSWD or the NGO will manage the diversion programs and accommodation for the children in existing youth centers.
The national government should allocate funds to the DSWD or to the NGO for the renting of alternative houses for the care and training of the children. Community-based programs manned by skilled community workers must be developed to help the children.
The terrible abusive condition of the hundreds of jailed children, the daily violation of their rights and violations of the child protection law are an affront to human dignity and an insult to the national pride. The way we treat our children is a reflection of the Philippines as a nation and it’s not looking very good right now.