Preda runs ideal facilities for the accommodation and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law. All over the country, many local government units are unable to protect the children. “The mindset of those who are supposed to implement the law is still within the framework that the child is a criminal and should be punished,” says Salinlahi secretary general Eule Bonganay.
By RITCHE T. SALGADO, O.CARM.
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Every night, Christopher* shows up at the fish port in Olongapo City to earn some income. He helps fish vendors move buckets of fish, then he begs for their scrap fish, which he would later sell. Sometimes he joins others in a swimming race to boats nearing the docks to see if there is fish to haul. Only 16 years old, he is already responsible enough to bring home to his family some of the fish he earns from his night job.
In early August 2022, a stranger asked him to deliver a box of chocolates to a man wearing a red shirt just near the place where he lived. He was to earn P200 ($3.49) from the transaction. When he reached the appointed place, however, he was accosted by undercover police agents.
The box apparently did not contain any chocolate but 50 grams of methamphetamine hydrochloride, also known as “shabu,” “ice,” or “meth.” Under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, also known as Republic Act (RA) 9165, possession of 50 grams or more of shabu is punishable by life imprisonment to death** and a fine ranging from P500,000 to P10 million — a grim penalty for any person, but more so for a minor like Christopher, who claims he was set up.
Christopher was brought to a facility run by the People’s Recovery, Empowerment Development Assistance Foundation, Inc. (Preda) in Zambales. Preda, a human rights and social development organization, runs ideal facilities for the accommodation and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law.
Other children in conflict with the law (CICLs) are not always as fortunate. Some were placed in detention centers and jails.
Heinous crimes — such as possession of illegal drugs — committed by minors provoked legislators in 2019 to try to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (RA 9344) to reduce the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to nine years old.
Lawmakers pushing for reduction of the MACR argued it will discourage criminal syndicates from using children in committing crimes. That argument was widely criticized, and the proposed bill was shelved due to strong opposition from various sectors and within Congress itself.
Former Sen. Vicente Sotto III refiled the bill in July of the same year, but it never passed the committee level. Instead, it was referred to the Committee on Justice and Human Rights, the Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, and the Committee on Finance.
The failed bid to amend the law on juvenile justice sparked a debate on what compels children to commit crimes and how the law should respond.
The scourge of poverty
Junjun,* 13, scavenges for trash and scraps in Meycauayan, Bulacan. In early December 2021, he entered what he thought was an abandoned house to scavenge scraps and steel bars he could later sell. He would use the money to support his sister, whom he said was being abused physically by her husband.
Junjun’s father is dead while his mother is in jail, serving time for selling illegal drugs. The owner of the house had been looking for Junjun; it was not the first time he entered the property to take what he believed was scrap. That day, however, he was caught and brought to the barangay, and then to a holding facility where he was interned for a month before he was brought to a facility run by Preda in Zambales.
According to children’s rights advocacy group Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns (Salinlahi), most children in conflict with the law (CICL) like Christopher and Junjun come from troubled families and live in poor communities. They were exposed early on to criminal activities in their families or communities, and often have a low level of education.
“Criminality in children is primarily rooted in poverty. These children are mostly involved in petty crimes that are property-related like stealing, snatching, hold-up. These crimes have something to do with poverty and were committed with the aim of helping their families,” said Eule Bonganay, Salinlahi secretary general.
Child psychotherapist Fr. Geraldo Costa, CICM, of the Psychological Association of the Philippines, said some factors that push a child to commit a crime include family-related problems, history of alcohol and drug use, a dysfunctional family, developmental problems or disorder, abandonment, and neglect, among others.
“But the root cause is poverty,” he said, adding that most of these children have a deficiency or are malnourished, and so their brains have difficulty developing, resulting in difficulties in understanding.
“These children are vulnerable to commit a crime because they could not reflect on their actions,” he said.
Fr. Costa related that a community that they served in the Cordilleras was brought to their attention because of the number of incidents of robberies involving children.
“Most of these happened in the school, like the canteen,” he said. The number of cases prompted them to visit the place, where they confirmed that the community was extremely poor.
No condonation of juvenile crimes
Fr. Costa said that, as much as these children live in unfortunate circumstances that lead them to commit crimes, these acts and circumstances should not be romanticized.
“The children committed crimes. Laws were broken. Certain individuals were affected. The community was affected,” said Fr. Costa, who is also the founder and director of St. Louis University – Sunflower Children’s Center in Baguio City.
“We should avoid the themes like ‘these children are criminals and they should be in jail,’ and on the other side, ‘they are just children’,” he said.
Bonganay agreed that children who committed crimes should learn accountability and the consequences of their actions, and believes that RA 9344 and its subsequent amendment (RA 10630) provides for such remedies.
“These laws were created to protect the child from all forms of abuse. It does not condone the child’s involvement in the crime. The child’s accountability is not absolved. There is still the civil liability; what was removed was the criminal liability,” Bonganay explained.
“The child has to undergo a program on rehabilitation that would allow them to realize that a criminal act has a consequence and to help them reintegrate with the community, allowing them to become productive members of the community,” he said.
Implement, don’t amend
The problem with the juvenile justice system in the country continues to be the lack of facilities that could accommodate and properly rehabilitate CICLs. Many local government units still do not have a facility that could properly address the needs of CICLs, and even in those with facilities, “conditions are not what the law intended.”
In 2006, children’s rights advocates celebrated the passing of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, aimed at properly addressing the rehabilitation needs of the growing number of CICLs in the country.
“The Philippines is far more advanced than other countries in the way that children are being dealt,” said Fr. Costa.
Children’s rights advocates agree that RA 9344 is commendable because it exceeds international agreements on children’s rights signed by the Philippine government, like the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (Beijing Rules), and it meets the needs of CICLs. However, they also agree that the implementation of the law itself is weak and needs to be given attention.
“We have a better process than other countries,” he said. “We basically fully accepted the rights of the child. It is just a matter of effectively implementing the policies.”
“The best aspect of this law is probably giving these children a real chance to change themselves through diversion and rehabilitation programs giving them a chance to get the necessary interventions needed for them to become useful members of society,” said lawyer Joan Dymphna G. Saniel, executive director of Cebu-based Children’s Legal Bureau, Inc.
She said that a success story on the effectiveness of the law is that of Ben Ric Castillon who underwent a diversion program, finishing his training at Magone Home Aftercare Program run by the Salesians of Don Bosco. After Magone Home, Ben Ric decided to pursue college, finishing a degree in psychology and is now preparing for the licensure exams.
Francis Bermedo, Jr., president of Preda, said RA 9344 is good, and there is a deficiency only in its implementation, which is why his group opposed attempts to amend the law itself.
Preda is a member of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC), a policy-making, coordinating, and monitoring body tasked with monitoring the implementation of RA 9344. It is attached to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and has, as its members, several government agencies and non-government organizations.
The problem with the juvenile justice system in the country continues to be the lack of facilities that could accommodate and properly rehabilitate CICLs, said Bermedo. Many local government units (LGUs) still do not have a facility that could properly address the needs of CICLs, and even in those with facilities, “conditions are not what the law intended,” he said.
“There are guidelines, but not all existing Bahay Pag-asa centers are compliant,” he said.
‘The reality on the ground is some CICLs are still being placed in detention centers and jails.’
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas also believes that the problem is the implementation of the law. “The approach should be on the comprehensive welfare of the children. Reality on the ground is some CICLs are still being placed in detention centers and jails,” she said, adding that lowering the MACR would be detrimental to children.
While Christopher was taken to Preda a few hours after he was interviewed by the police, Junjun had to stay for a month in a holding facility in Bulacan. There, he said he was quarantined in a separate cell for 15 days, after which he was transferred to a cell with three other boys aged around 15.
Junjun said the facility was basically a jail. “We could not go out. All we did was eat and sleep,” he said.
“The law was created to protect the rights of children; what we need is the full implementation of the law,” Bonganay pointed out.
Teach restoration, not retribution
Bonganay sees several problems in the implementation of the law. Foremost is the mindset of law enforcers, social workers, and the courts.
“The mindset of those who are supposed to implement the law is still within the framework that the child is a criminal and should be punished,” he said, adding that this is why there was an attempt to amend the law.
“The challenge is really the mindset of people, especially the implementers because they are not used to the restorative justice framework. They are still in the framework of retributive justice,” Saniel added.
“Because of this mindset, the implementers would rather have them imprisoned rather than undergo diversion programs. It is also easier for them as they do not have to think of ways for the CICL to be restored to the community and be a better and responsible citizen,” she added.
Saniel continued that training for those who were to implement the law would be useless if they continue with the retributive justice mindset, as it would be difficult for them to believe in restorative justice.
Saniel added that restorative justice is when the CICL is made to reconcile with the victim and the community affected by the crime committed.
“This entails the CICL to repair the harm done to the victim, like giving back the item taken in theft cases or to repairing the damage to property, as well as implementing other rehabilitation measures,” she said.
“The mindset of people is retributive, that is, justice is attained through retribution or penalties. Since there is a crime, then the offender should be punished by imprisonment without considering the circumstances why the crime was committed in the first place,” she added.
She added that most of the children who get involved in a crime “just need attention and care, and they would respond if they are provided with the care and attention of significant adults.”
“The reason why these children are lost is because they did not experience love in their homes. Many are victims of abuse inside their homes, with physical and humiliating violence; many are neglected,” said Wilma T. Bañaga, child protection advisor for Save the Children Philippines.
“They would be looking for love and acceptance outside their homes. Unfortunately, they would find it in their peers who may not be a good influence, people that they encounter in the community, in the streets who are bad influences,” she said.
Salinlahi believes that the government needs to focus on the setting up of local councils for the protection of children (LCPC) starting from the barangay level. This, Bonganay said, depends on the priorities of the elected officials.
Sec. 15 of RA 9344 requires all levels of the local government to establish LCPCs composed of representatives from the youth sector, government, and private agencies concerned with the welfare of children. They are tasked to coordinate and assist the LGU in the “adoption of a comprehensive plan on delinquency prevention,” as well as in overseeing its implementation.
Bañaga said there were communities that were able to set up a Children’s Justice Committee (CJC) composed of community volunteers. The CJC members would talk to the child and their family, as well as with the aggrieved party.
“The child must realize that he did something wrong and he has to pay for it,” she said.
The CJC would then help the child, their family, and the aggrieved party to come up with a way on how the child could make amends for their offense. This could be in the form of participating in sessions on life skills or to do community service. The CJC will monitor the child’s compliance. Parents could also be required to attend parenting sessions.
Fr. Costa said that in rehabilitating the child, the family and the community should be involved.
“The concept of restorative justice is the best way for these kids. It is not a question of punishment,” he said.
“The concept of restorative justice is that you bring justice to the victims by making the child who committed the crime to somehow try to do something that favors the victim and the community,” he added.
However, Fr. Costa pointed out that there are cases where forgiveness from the aggrieved party could not be obtained. He said there have been cases where the child was guided to continue to seek reconciliation. On the other hand, the aggrieved party can also undergo sessions to help them heal.
A reason to vote wisely
Bonganay pointed out the lack of budget for the full implementation of the law and the lack of research in terms of its impact.
Bermedo said that although the law has created JJWC to monitor its implementation, the office is mostly a policy-making and recommendatory body.
“We recommend to the different local government units, but it will be up to the LGUs to implement it,” he said, adding that if CICLs are not a priority of the politician, then it is unlikely for that LGU to have a program for CICLs.
RA 9344 mandates that one percent of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) of the barangays, municipalities, and cities be allotted to the LCPC. The LCPC is the “primary agency to coordinate with and assist the LGU concerned for the adoption of a comprehensive plan on delinquency prevention, and to oversee its proper implementation.”
Aside from this, the LGUs up to the provincial level are mandated to allocate a budget necessary for the implementation of a “juvenile intervention program.” This includes the setting up of a Bahay Pag-asa including hiring qualified personnel that would implement the program for the rehabilitation of the CICLs.
Bermedo believes that LGUs do not need to put up facilities of their own since not all LGUs have the budget for a proper facility. He suggests that LGUs instead pool their resources to set up a facility that would serve all the different LGUs.
Bañaga, however, pointed out that putting CICLs in shelters like Bahay Pag-asa should be the last resort.
“The community should be involved in the rehabilitation of the child. Not all CICLs should be placed in a facility. Some can remain in the community where a community-based diversion program can be implemented in the barangay; in that way the investment needed would not be that significant,” she said.
In terms of research, Bonganay said there has been no definitive and comprehensive study on the impact of RA 9344.
“It’s more than a decade now since the law was ratified, yet there is still no study done on its impact. This is needed for us to be able to comprehensively assess the law and see its problems,” he said.
“In the end, the government should make sure to properly address the problem of poverty,” said Bonganay.
“There should be available services to families in urban poor communities that would help uplift their economic conditions. There should be a program in the education department that would help bring children back to school. Out-of-school youths should be given the opportunity to continue with their studies in order to lessen their involvement in criminal activities,” Bonganay said.
Bañaga agreed. “We should make sure that children have access to education because this would greatly help in preventing children from being involved in risky behavior,” she said.
“This is what we mostly miss, that is, we are too focused on the response that we fail to address its prevention,” Bañaga said.
“We should really focus on the implementation of the law and the guiding should be that it should be pro-poor and the programs and activities that would be implemented should be in view of the interest of the child — economic, political, and cultural aspect,” Rep. Brosas added.
Dreaming of home
It has been almost a year since Junjun was brought to Preda and he said that not a day would pass without him wanting to go home to his family.
“There are days when families are made to come here, but my family is very far, it is difficult for them to visit,” Junjun said, adding that he is allowed to make a video call with members of his family.
“I keep myself busy so that I won’t feel lonely. We have a lot of things to do here like story-telling, sports, karate, and powerdance,” he said.
Emmanuel Drewery, executive director of Preda, said that part of their program is to educate family members or guardians of the children. This is done through a family day activity, where family members are gathered for recreation together with the children.
Children are free to roam around Preda; that is why there are really newly-arrived children who would try to leave. However, Drewery said that once they notice that a child has disappeared, they would immediately contact the local authorities, and they are brought back to the facility.
“Most of them are caught walking along the road,” Drewery said, adding that there are also instances when the family members are the ones who would bring them back to the facility.
He said that eventually the child would realize the reason he is in the facility and decide to finish his program.
*Names withheld to protect the identity of the respondent who is a minor.
**Imposition of the death penalty in the Philippines was prohibited in 2006 when Congress passed RA 9346.
This story was first published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism as part of its Prison Reporting project.