“Children are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA — Child rights advocates vowed to oppose any proposed law that will bring down the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the current 15 years old to nine.
In a round table discussion held on Tuesday, Aug. 30 at the House of Representatives, several non-government organizations helping children in conflict with the law (CICL) said existing laws on juvenile justice are not even being implemented at the barangay (village) level. These are Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) of 2006, and RA 10630, which amended RA 9344.
The groups said these laws should be fully implemented and funded to assist and rehabilitate child offenders or CICLs.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) providing services for the CICL observed that the multi-disciplinary team, as provided under RA 10630 an Act Strengthening the Juvenile Justice System in the Philippines, has not functioned at the local level.
The law also provides that the multi-disciplinary team will run a “Bahay Pag-asa” (House of Hope), a 24-hour child-caring institution for CICL and abused children. The NGOs noted that the Bahay Pag-asa in operation is not efficient.
Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas, a staunch advocate of children’s rights, said there is no time to waste as among the priority bills in the 17th Congress is House Bill 002, which seeks to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
“We must not let this pass even in the committee level,” she said.
‘RA 9344 not fully implemented on the ground’
“How can they lower the age of criminal responsibility when the law itself was not even implemented?” said Christian Dawawong, project specialist of Child and Family Service Philippines Inc., which provides services to street children, out-of-school-youth as well as CICL. Dawawong said they have observed that there is no multi-disciplinary team in Baguio City.
RAP 10630 provides for a multi-disciplinary team to be composed of a social worker, a psychologist or mental health professional, a medical doctor, an educational or guidance counselor and a Barangay Council for the Protection of Children (BCPC) member, who shall operate the Bahay Pag-asa.
The multi-disciplinary team, according to the law, “will work on the individualized intervention plan with the child and the child’s family.” But NGOs assisting CICL said these have not materialized on the ground.
Most village officials do not know about this law, said Kate Roque, a social worker of the Open Heart Foundation, a community-based NGO that provides services to the youth. She said they have been educating and training BCPCs on the law and how to handle minors who commit offenses.
Councilor Fred Emerson Dela Peña of Mambugan village, Antipolo City said there is only one CICL center in their village.
“We lack the facilities. We share space in an office. We also lack materials and food, and children tend to escape,” Dela Peña said. He added that when he was a volunteer in a CICL center, minor offenders escape the center within two to four days.
Dela Peña also said the problem with implementing such a law is that the national government puts all responsibility at the local level, despite the fact that many barangays belonging to fourth or fifth class municipalities lack the capability to implement the law.
“When the law was passed, it was just a piece of paper thrown at our desks. The government doesn’t provide us with the tools to be effective, specially since it’s not a priority in the budget,” he said. He added that only one percent of the general fund of the barangay is allocated to the CICL desk.
‘No hope in Bahay Pag-asa’
The Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center (CLRDC) is an NGO extending free legal assistance to CICL for several years even before the passage of RA 9344 and later RA 10630. They regularly conduct monitoring visits in Bahay Pag-asa as part of their program.
Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the CLDRC, noted the dismal condition of children in Bahay Pag-asa centers. She said calling it as Bahay Pag-asa is a misnomer since centers, at least those that they have visited, look like prisons.
Some reports reaching GWP also revealed that there is no clear program of rehabilitation for children held in Bahay Pag-asa. There is also “no education that will correct offenders based on the principles of restorative justice. Brosas said children are “locked up in dirty rooms resembling an actual prison cell, denied proper food or clothing, and their emotional, mental and psychosocial needs are unmet. There are no interventions by either a child psychologist or a social worker.”
In Congress, several lawmakers filed House Resolution 252 to investigate the insufficient funding for the construction, operation and management of Bahay Pag-asa. The resolution was filed by Makabayan bloc legislators, along with Lipa City Rep. Vilma Santos Recto, Bataan 1st District Rep. Geraldine Roman and Antipolo 1st District Rep. Maria Cristina Roa-Puno.
The GWP also filed House Resolution 235 to conduct onsite investigation on the dismal, unsanitary and neglected condition of Bahay Pag-asa.
‘No basis for lowering minimum age of criminal responsibility’
Legaspi said her group has not encountered a nine-year old child offender in the centers. She said in the cities of Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela (Camanava), there are only less than 300 detained CICL between ages 10 to 17 years old. Those who are below 15 years old were only there for vagrancy, “a status and victimless offense” under the law, Legaspi said.
She added only 10 to 15 percent of the children between 12 to 15 years old committed offenses such as theft, like stealing of food, school supplies or cellphones. “These children are supposed to undergo barangay intervention program and must not be put in the center as provided by JJWA,” she said.
In every 30 children ages above 15 years old but below 18, only 10 percent have allegedly committed heinous crimes. She said under the JJWA, they should undergo diversion program, but this has not been observed.
If there were nine-year-old child offenders, she said, they were only victims of their dire situation.
“That is why we think there is no basis to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to nine,” she said.
Legaspi also said that General Comment No. 10 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized that the minimum age of criminal responsibility cannot be lowered back once it has already been increased. The comment also set 12 years old as the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and lower than that is internationally unacceptable.
The Child Rights International Network’s list of the minimum age of criminal responsibility in countries around the world showed that only a few countries, in the Americas for example, https://www.crin.org/en/home/ages/Americas have set the minimum age of criminal responsibility lower than 12 years old. Trinidad and Tobago and one state in the United States, North Carolina, have set the lower minimum age of criminal responsibility to seven years old.
Child offenders come from poor families
Groups present in the discussion united to fight the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility. They lamented that they have fought for and supported the retention of the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 15 years old and now they are fighting for it again.
They all recognize that children are victims of circumstances that are “beyond their control.”
Dela Peña shared that many CICL who were caught in their village are forced to commit crimes because they needed to help their families. He said a minor, especially if he or she is the eldest, thinks of ways to help their families. “These children came from poor families. They were deprived of basic social services and practically has nothing,” he said.
Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concern also said in its position paper that profiles of CICL cases handled by the Department of Social Welfare and Development showed that most come from “low-earning families, have stopped schooling and are exposed to alcohol and drug use, and were charged with property related crime like robbery, shoplifting and the like.”
“We should therefore regard CICL as victims of state neglect and abandonment. Their rights to survival, to develop and be protected have been denied them. They have been failed miserably by the society that’s now branding them as criminals,” the group’s position paper read.