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The Philippines needs children’s courts

Every time I sit in a Philippine family court with the Preda social workers and the children who are testifying against their sexual abusers, I see the many children and parents or guardians waiting to have their cases heard by the judge. Many other family-related cases come under the jurisdiction of the Family Court established by law (RA 9184) such as adoption, reconciliation of spouses, family controversy, petitions for guardianship, custody of children and habeas corpus cases. There are petitions for declaration of status of children as abandoned, dependent or neglected children and so on.

Besides all these cases, the court deals with all cases of children in conflict with the law. Many are children in violation of the dangerous drugs act and all cases of sexual abuse of minors. Besides all this, the Family Court Law says the family court judge is the inspector of the government homes for the detention of minors. Family court judges are over-loaded, over-worked and some say under-paid. It must change.

The most important and grievous cases of all are child sexual abuse and crimes of human trafficking of children. These cases take a very long time to be heard, tried and decided by some courts with heavy workloads. Judges, it seems, are stressed by the big number of cases. They are meticulous in hearing evidence, retaining knowledge of the case details and conducting due diligence in summing up and writing the decisions. There are sometimes decisions as long as 15 to 20 pages. This is rightly so since a conviction for child rape means life in prison for the accused if found guilty of this heinous crime and many are convicted.

There are many more child rape cases coming before the family courts because of extensive child rights advocacy and 37 laws protecting children and an increase in reporting of abuse. Victims and their relatives are now realizing that justice is to be had by dedicated judges.

More cases will be reaching the Family Courts with the passing in March 2022 of the law increasing the age of sexual consent. The sexual molestation of a child 16 years and below is now statuary rape. Until 2022, the age of consent was 12 years old. Many victims were forced to testify that she “loved” him, that she “wanted it.” The abuser walked free to continue the abuse. That’s how the Philippine congress, made up of mostly male representatives, wanted it from 1935 until 2022. With 28 percent female representatives at present, new child protection laws have been passed.

The Philippines needs a law establishing a "Children’s Court.” With greater trust in the judicial system, more cases are being filed and tried ending in more convictions. However, thousands of child rape cases are still not reported. It is now very important to have a new law to establish a Children's Court to unburden the hard-working family court judges. This will be a court with experienced, highly-trained judges where only child abuse cases will be heard continuously without delay and no postponements.

Defense lawyers try to postpone and extend hearings so that “witness fatigue” makes the child and supporters lose heart of ever getting justice. The delays, if and when granted by the court, gives the defense time to pressure the child’s family into withdrawing the case, offer an out-of-court settlement or prevent the child from appearing in court. The purpose of the judicial system is frustrated and trust in the judicial system can be thereby tarnished. The child continues to suffer and be threatened by the abuser if he is not already jailed or is out on bail. This is happening now and prosecutors are asking judges to order the child to be referred to children's homes like Preda Foundation for her or his protection and empowerment.

Some courts in Zambales and other provinces in Central Luzon are doing that at present to see that the child is cared for and justice is done. This prevents the judicial system from being manipulated and rendered useless in abuse cases. The Preda Foundation’s home for abused children empowers the children so that they win justice and closure with as many as 21 convictions of their abusers in 2022 alone and an average of 16 convictions annually.

Five judges in family courts in Cebu had a meeting with the President of Preda Foundation, Francis Bermido Jr. and the Executive Director, Emmanuel Drewery, and explained that many children are not attending their hearings after they file cases because they are prevented and hidden away by the accused and his relatives. Impressed by the high conviction rate by Preda empowered children, the judges asked them to open a protective and empowerment therapeutic home in Cebu to empower the children to testify clearly to the truth without fear or hesitation in court and be consistent under cross examination. Dedicated prosecutors are asking the same as they can win many more cases. When the children receive no care, therapy or protection, they are threatened and terrified to testify and are emotionally unable to repeat the story of their rape and abuse. The judges see that justice is denied the child-victims and their courts cannot do justice.

Protective empowerment therapeutic homes are a key element in the judicial system to deliver justice and implement the law. The news of every conviction spreads on social media and that is a powerful deterrent to would-be child abusers. During her recent visit to the Philippines, Mama Fatima Singhateh, the UN special rapporteur for on-line child abuse and child trafficking and domestic child abuse, advised that the Philippines pass a law to set up a special children’s court. This is needed to hear child abuse cases exclusively.

She called for the creation of a court exclusively for child abuse cases, instead of having them lumped together with other cases handled by family courts. Child sexual abuse cases, she said, “should be decided expeditiously. Delays cause trauma on victims because they get to relive their ordeal over and over again until the case is resolved.” The UN rapporteur also supported the creation of a child protection home inside the judicial system, the very urgent need that the Cebu judges are requesting Preda Foundation to establish. Preda is presently looking for agencies and sponsors of such a therapeutic home.

The new child marriage law is soon to be implemented and Mama Fatima Singhateh said the Philippines should monitor all so-called “child marriage” abuse cases and collect data on the number of rescued children, all reported cases and the number of convictions which, at present, is dismally very low nation-wide if any. Prosecutors ought to request judges to order the threatened and intimidated child- victims be protected, healed, and empowered in a specialized therapeutic home. This is an urgent need and dedicated lawmakers should file and present their proposed new law establishing a Children’s Court to deliver justice to them and make history.

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