Philippines probes 'prison'-like children's centre amid outcry

MANILA (AFP) - Top Philippines officials said Monday they had launched investigations into a Manila children's centre overseen by a former president, after months of complaints about the "prison"-like conditions.

There has been a growing outcry over conditions at the government-run facility where vagrant children and some homeless adults are held, amid allegations of abuse.

Charity groups allege a litany of maltreatment including violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition and torture and newspapers have in recent days carried photographs of an emaciated child resident.

Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada, now the mayor of Manila, who is in charge of the government-run Manila Reception and Action Centre, said he had ordered an investigation into the facility, which is located near the city hall.

"I have already ordered an investigation of that," he told AFP, reacting to the newspaper images.

But Mr Estrada, deposed as president amid a corruption scandal in 2001, also took a defiant stance, saying "they are just trying to blow it (the issue) up," although he declined to be specific.

The charity group Bahay Tuluyan (House of Refuge) which first raised the problems at the centre in 2009, said authorities had consistently failed to act.

"They only responded now that (the controversy) is in the open," said Lily Flordelis, executive director of the charity. "The centre has many abuses going on: violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition, torture of children," she told AFP.

She said those running the facility had admitted it could only accommodate 50 people, but was often holding about 250. Children were locked in at night with only a pail to urinate in, she said. Manila officials blamed the harsh conditions on lack of money, she said. But many of the children also complained of beatings and abuse by other children or staff of the centre, problems which could not be blamed on funding.

"If they cannot commit (to improve conditions), we are asking them to close shop. It is so inhuman what they are doing there," she said.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said her agency was also carrying out its own investigation and she expected to receive a full report by November 30.

She told AFP she had previously read reports of the alleged abuse at the Manila centre but since it was run by the city of Manila, she could not easily take action.

"This is a local government-run facility and therefore, accountability will be with the city social welfare and development office as well as the elected officials who are the authority," she said.

She said criminal charges might be filed, if warranted but added, "I don't want to pre-judge the case publicly".