Where’s hope in Bahay Pag-asa?
Worse than jail cells, lacking even furniture.” That was how Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) executive director Tricia Oco described to the Senate justice and human rights committee the appalling state of some of the Bahay Pag-asa facilities mandated to rehabilitate children in conflict with the law (CICL).
More grim details: “Wala silang programs, wala silang beds. Wala silang cabinets. Ang mga bata doon, they are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything. Others even resort to self-harm because they’re very bored.”
The harrowingly described Bahay Pag-asa, unfortunately, would be the destination for even more children, some as young as 9 years old, if Malacañang and other proponents of the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from the current 15 would have their way.
House Bill No. 8858 mandates, among others, that children 12 to 18 years old who end up in trouble with the law (the original proposal was 9, but was upped to 12 after public backlash) would be sent to the nearest youth care facility, otherwise called Bahay Pag-asa, for rehabilitation.
Are there even enough such facilities nationwide? Under the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2013, there should be; the law requires each province and highly urbanized city to build, fund and operate a Bahay Pag-asa, defined as a 24-hour child caring institution that would serve as a short-term residential care and rehabilitation for CICL, instead of regular jails.
That’s the ideal; the reality, as usual, is a dismal letdown. Of the 114 Bahay Pag-asa centers that should be in operation, one for each of the country’s 81 provinces and 33 highly urbanized areas, only 58 are in operation, according to the JJWC. And of these, only five Bahay Pag-asa units are accredited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the JJWC for being compliant with prescribed standards, according to Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman.
The indifference to and lack of support for such crucial halfway houses for troubled youth is reflected in the budget. The proposed 2019 national appropriations, for instance, mentions no allocation for the roll-out or maintenance of Bahay Pag-asa facilities. This means that the lamentable conditions in the existing hard-up centers are only bound to worsen once the bill lowering the MACR is passed, and more kids deemed as child criminals are dispatched to such sorry institutions.
Rather than looking first at whether the current Juvenile Justice Act has been fully implemented, including its requirement for an adequate number of well-supported youth reformation centers across the country to handle CICL (whose acts account for just 1.72 percent of reported crimes, according to official data, and mostly poverty-induced such as theft), the government is hell-bent on deploying a virtual sledgehammer to its imagined epidemic of children’s crimes by penalizing even more Filipino minors. How many local government units, for instance, have complied with the law to maintain a Bahay Pag-asa in their midst? “This is a more pressing concern, because there was serious neglect on the part of the local government units,” noted Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, a former Valenzuela City mayor, offered his own LGU experience as a guide. Valenzuela, he said, has been running a successful Bahay Pag-asa—one of only two cities in Metro Manila to have such a home. About 75 percent of juvenile offenders brought to the Valenzuela facility are eventually rehabilitated, reunited with their families and are able to continue their studies, according to Gatchalian. “So if there is the proper facility, the proper intervention program, and the local government unit will do its job, the children have hope.”
Gatchalian cites his empirical, on-the-ground experience as the basis for his decision on this contentious issue; he is not in favor of lowering the MACR to 12, much less to 9, or to amending the current law. “My point is, we did not give the Juvenile Justice Act the chance to be implemented,” he said. “If we were able to do it in Valenzuela, I am sure it can be done in the other localities.”
It sure can. But only if lawmakers and other politicians look beyond the vested need to kowtow to a jaundiced presidential idée fixe, and buckle down instead to giving their juvenile constituents the Bahay Pag-asa they deserve under the law.
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