MANILA, Philippines - Officials running a local government facility in Manila that is supposed to shelter and nurture street children have come under fire for acts of negligence and maltreatment so severe that shocked observers likened the place to a "concentration camp."
To stress just how bad things are at the Manila Reception and Action Center (RAC), welfare advocates wrote City Hall for the third time last month. This time, they enclosed a photo of "Frederico," one of the wards, showing the naked boy lying on the pavement, reduced to skin and bones.
Frederico's appalling condition showed the kind of care-or the lack of it-that children like him had been receiving at the RAC, according to Catherine Scerri, deputy director of Bahay Tuluyan, a nongovernment organisation promoting children's rights.
It was Scerri who took Frederico's photo on Oct 12 during a visit to the centre, which is located on Villegas Street in Ermita, a five-minute walk from City Hall.
"We don't know much about his identity," Scerri said of the boy, who had since been transferred to another youth centre with Bahay Tuluyan's help. When examined up close, the emaciated child sported rashes and a "black eye," she recalled.
Based on the scant details she had gathered, Frederico was found abandoned in Paco and brought to the centre on March 8. After seven months, for reasons still unclear, the RAC staff members have yet to determine his real name, age and address. They cited the lack of funds for medical treatment to explain the boy's pitiful state, she said.
"It can definitely be described as a prison. (My colleagues) have compared it to a concentration camp. It is supposed to rehabilitate street children but it is not a child-friendly place," Scerri told the Inquirer in an interview on Thursday.
Operated by the Manila Social Welfare Department (MSWD), the RAC was established about 30 years ago as a place where the police or village watchmen can bring child vagrants and beggars. It occupies a cluster of buildings built in the 1930s.
In February, a month before Frederico arrived at the RAC, the Manila-based NGO sent the first of a series of letters to Mayor Joseph Estrada and MSWD chief Shiela Marie Lacuna-Pangan, raising its concerns.
The letter, signed by BT Executive Director Lily Flordelis, called on the officials to improve the conditions at the RAC-or just close the place down if they could not do it.
Aside from poor health and nutrition, violence-bred by overcrowding and strained resources-has been part of the children's daily diet of misery. "Many children we have spoken to complained that they were physically abused, assaulted and even tortured by the RAC staff," Flordelis said.
These incidents largely went unreported to higher authorities, she said. If ever documented in cases where the victim had to undergo a medical examination, the resulting reports were "very superficial" because the examination was done "in the presence of the same officials who had beaten up the child, thereby inhibiting (full) disclosure" of the injuries.
In the interview, Scerri also noted that "bullying" was apparently being tolerated at the centre.
During an earlier visit, she said, she caught "two boys carrying a younger boy by his wrists and ankles. I was alarmed so I intervened after the workers there didn't do anything. When I talked to the young boy, who was about 10 years old, he was terrified because he almost got beaten up."
Bahay Tuluyan also noted how RAC personnel had failed to notify the children's parents and guardians weeks or months after the minors arrived there.
Bucket for the boys
"The centre officials said the place can accommodate about 100 people, but on any given day there can be as many 400 there. Recently I saw about 160 boys sharing a room just about five-by-six meters wide. They have nothing in there but a bucket-for those who need to pee," Scerri said.
Sought for comment, Estrada said he had "reprimanded the head of the MSWD (Pangan) and the RAC for this."
"They said they did not mean to neglect the child (Frederico) and that this is an isolated case. I have ordered the MSWD to improve the treatment of children there. This won't be repeated. If it happens again, heads will roll," the mayor, adding that he found the boy's photo disturbing.
He vowed to pour in more funds for the centre. "Hopefully next year we can improve RAC and its facilities; we expect (the city government) to be debt-free by then. We don't see a need to shut down RAC's operations. The services there will improve."
Pangan and RAC officials, led by acting chief Gloria Antonio, did not respond to Inquirer requests for an interview.
Meeting with Erap, finally
Scerri said Estrada made the same pledge when she and other Bahay Tuluyan officers finally had a meeting with him on Nov 6 and 10.
"He promised us that there will be more funding and even new buildings (for the centre) in 2015."
"We have been campaigning for improvements since 2008 but we've seen very little (progress). So we are hoping the government will show sincerity. We want to see a clear action plan."
A third meeting with Estrada is set on Nov 26.
As to Frederico, she said, "we received news that he's already doing fine and has started to put on weight. But there are still many things needed to be done for him. We still don't have a complete diagnosis of his condition."
"His case may be considered 'isolated,' but we have strongly established that the problems at the RAC are systemic. The children may actually be safer and more able to fend for themselves out in the streets than inside the centre, where they only end up traumatized."