HomeNewsPhilippine lockdown heightens child risks in juvenile centers, communities

Philippine lockdown heightens child risks in juvenile centers, communities

Parents wave at the child behind barred gates. There are no hugs nor kisses. They chat briefly, strangers watching on.

There are no details about how life is back home or in the juvenile welfare center that hosts children in conflict with the law.

After a few minutes, the visitors leave. The child goes back inside the center called “House of Hope” where overcrowding, heat, and spartan food are the norm.

This scene in Malabon, a city on the northern outskirts of the Philippine capital, is a step up from the total lack of visits allowed in most of the country’s 79 government-run juvenile welfare centers.

The lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has heightened risks faced by thousands of children deprived of liberty as contagion cut off family support and rehabilitative activities.

The processing of court cases has also stopped during the lockdown.

Officials of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council and allied state agencies admitted that minors in 79 centers across the country need stress debriefing and psychological services.

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They also urged law enforcement authorities to avoid further endangering children during the contagion by using the juvenile justice system when arresting minors for quarantine violations instead of booking them as common criminals.

Lilibeth Gallego, head of the council’s information and monitoring office, acknowledged that most centers are overcrowded.

She said the limits to activities that help in the rehabilitation of minor offenders have affected the children’s emotional and mental well-being.

“We need to start with psychological and stress debriefings, and we hope that non-government organizations and other partners can provide support,” said Gallego.

A survey of 1,238 residents of 35 centers on the main island of Luzon showed problems with mental health. Children fear for families. They fret over the lack of contact with parents, and a halt to court hearings.

But similar problems are also faced by young people in general, said the Unicef in a statement on May 20, the 13th anniversary of the country’s Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.

Justice delayed

Maria Consolacion Salcedo of the Council for the Welfare of Children, an inter-agency body that formulates, reviews and monitors laws on children, said they have started talks with the Supreme Court to speed up the release of some residents of juvenile centers.

Executives overseeing the plight of children in conflict with the law also appealed for help in procuring digital equipment and systems to ensure that center residents still access judicial services even amid quarantine restrictions.

Officials in the city of Malabon said coordination with local courts facilitated the remote arraignment of dozens of youth offenders.

At least one offender was approved by the court for release but remains at the center because his home is in a COVID-19 hot zone.

Children living in the streets are often linked to criminal activities. (File photo by Eloisa Lopez)

In many areas, however, where courts and local government units lack resources, judicial proceedings have grounded to a halt or focused only on the most critical cases, often skewed in favor of law enforcement agencies.

Mario Dionisio Jr. of the Public Attorney’s Office said the Supreme Court has issued guidelines that give recognizance and provisional dismissal procedures “urgent” status.

A new rule also slashes bail rates by half during the pandemic to ease entry into jails and other detention centers.

More than 9,700 suspects nationwide have been released due to the High Court’s new rules, Dionisio said, citing an April 20 report by the Office of the Court Administrator Midas Marquez.

In a May 29 update, Marquez said 22,522 persons have been released after more than 3,000 video conferencing sessions.

But Dionisio said the police should avoid booking young curfew violators on criminal charges and use government-mandated grassroots processes that balance corrective measures like community service with family support.

Social welfare officials and Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef child protection specialist, echoed the appeal, saying authorities should file criminal charges only as a last resort even after the pandemic.

The Unicef official said the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus disease are vital to public health but also expose children to increased risk of violence – including maltreatment, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation.

“Movement restrictions, the closure of schools, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and observe physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home,” read a Unicef statement.

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