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Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

The scourge of child abuse in Philippine detention centers

The scourge of child abuse in Philippine detention centers

Portraits of alleged victims, including children and youths, of the Philippine war on drugs are displayed at a protest in Manila in July 2019. (Photo: Richard James Mendoza/AFP)

Published: September 27, 2021 10:28 AM GMT
Jail is no place for kids. If youths are rebellious, it is because they are unloved and abused by parents or society

The torture and abuse of children behind bars are unpleasant truths that may not set us free from guilt, apathy and indifference. It is not only in the Philippines’ child detention centers called Bahya Pagasa that children and youths are maltreated. Many countries have reported serious child abuse in their detention facilities.

Treating youth as criminals has a lifelong traumatic impact on them. One thing for sure is the loss of trust and respect for the adult world of authority that allows them to be abused. As the saying goes, “Abuse a child and you make an enemy.”

Last June, Kak Sovann Chhay, an autistic 16-year-old son of a political activist in Cambodia, found himself on the spot for sending a message on the Telegram app that was considered insulting to ruling party officials. The police broke into his house without a warrant, handcuffed and arrested him.

He was beaten and lodged in an adult jail in Phnom Penh. His mother is not allowed to visit him. A lawyer did and reported squalid conditions not fit for an animal. United Nations officials have been alerted and expressed urgent concerns over violations of his human rights. Sovann Chhay is now facing two years in jail

In June 2015, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report on the abuse of minors in detention in the US. “This report, released as a follow-up to No Place for Kids, introduces new evidence on the widespread maltreatment of youth in state-funded juvenile corrections facilities. It tells of high rates of sexual victimization, the heavy-handed use of disciplinary isolation and a growing roster of states where confined youth have been subject to widespread abuse. The four-year update is in — and the news on violence in juvenile detention centers is not good,” its summary read.

Jail is no place for kids. If youths are rebellious, it is because they are unloved and abused by parents or society. They are born innocent. How come they become angry young people?

He was the cell slave. They would beat him by forcibly hanging him on a bar. The government social workers and guards ignored all this

A 16-year-old boy (call him Jun) was born in Negros Occidental. His parents broke up and his father left for Manila. His mother lived with a stepfather who was abusive and beat Jun repeatedly. When he continued to be abused, Jun ran away.

He got a free trip on a boat to Manila and tried without success to find his father. He met a friendly family and was given a job as an occasional motorcycle rider in the area.

On one trip the passenger insisted on being taken to a faraway place. Jun was stopped by police and arrested for not having a driving license. Also, he was charged with stealing the motorbike as he did not have papers to show.

The owner came to get the motorbike but Jun was jailed in the Bahay Pagasa. A criminal case was filed against him.

The detention center was for him a hellhole of abuse, neglect and violence. He slept on the concrete floor and was given bad-tasting expired food. He was forced to clean the filthy toilet, wash the clothes of bigger boys and suffered severe violence and abuse.

He was the cell slave. They would beat him by forcibly hanging him on a bar. The government social workers and guards ignored all this. On his birthday, the other youth detainees covered him with a blanket and beat, punched and kicked him until he collapsed and was almost unconscious. No one would help him for almost a year.

But Jun was lucky to be arrested and not to have been shot dead.

As many as 122 children and teenagers have been shot dead by police in the Philippine war on drugs where the police enjoy shoot-to-kill impunity. According to a report by the World Organization against Torture, the police admit to killing as many as 7,000 suspects, saying they “fought back” and “resisted.” Many children were targets and some were executed while others were caught in the crossfire, the police said.

On July 27, 2020, the prosecutor dismissed the case against Jun and ordered his release. He had no family to take him and the detention center authorities would not release him. It was unlawful detention.

Preda social workers heard about a malnourished and hungry, bruised and beaten Jun and completed the legal documentation for his transfer to the Preda New Dawn home, a government-accredited care home.

He was then transferred, ate lots of good food, played basketball, found friends and even started to learn to read and write. He found freedom, acceptance and affirmation and underwent therapy and counseling to help deal with his inner traumatic emotional hurt and pain.

The children confirmed the torture and abuse during interviews and through their drawings

Jun is now learning welding and electrical appliance repairs. He also loves to help on the farm.

A Preda social worker was able to locate his biological father in Manila and his mother in Negros. It is a dream come true for Jun. He can talk to them by phone. Soon he will be back to his biological father and live a happier life.

But not all such cases turn out for the best. Small kids as young as 10 have been put behind bars. They are being sexually abused and tortured. Preda called on the Commission on Human Rights to investigate the abuse suffered by children rescued by its social workers. The children confirmed the torture and abuse during interviews and through their drawings.

We need government officials everywhere to grow a conscience and perform their duty to protect children in homes, not in jails. They should never allow torture and sexual abuse.

What greater supporter do the children have than Jesus of Nazareth who said children are the most important in the world (Matt.18:1 -7) and their abusers and enablers must be brought to justice. That is everyone's duty and responsibility.

Irish missionary Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in the Philippines in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sexual abuse. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia