The Children of the Streets

Fr. Shay Cullen

Why and how are people, who do not know about human hardship and suffering, indifferent to helping the poor and brand 12-year-old children as criminals when they are just children, get elected to high offices? The reason is likely to be that they never suffered deprivation, hunger, and abandonment. They led privileged lives of entitlement and are mostly the children of rich political dynasties that seem to reign forever.

They get elected because they have hundreds of millions of pesos to glad-hand voters. Politicians in the Philippines have dozens, some even hundreds of paid and unpaid people working on computers to influence the electorate. They do it through social media spreading fake news against their opponents to bolster their own images and to win elections.  What kind of a person is it who wants to brand a 12-year-old as a criminal? The answer is a politician who has no knowledge or interest in the social realities that drive children to survive alone or in gangs on the streets.

To justify passing a law reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years of age and to blame the children for adult crimes, they claim the children have criminal minds. The children are living on the street and “steal” food and things, small stuff, to sell and get food. No one gives them food. They really need to eat, at least once a day, which is a human right. There is no free feeding program for street children.

Imagine yourself going without food for one or two days, no money, no job and you are just 12 years old. What would you do – beg, borrow, or steal? Hunger gives the deprived children and every one the powerful urge and the right to survive. Taking food to survive is not a crime. It is a necessity.

They are the unwanted throwaway children of the nation, ignored, and called “criminals”. They are beaten and driven out of their family, in the slums or in the lower-middle-class families by a violent father or a live-partner of their mother, who has no love for them and who abandons them. There are too many mouths to feed. Poverty is the root cause.

This reaction to brand the children as no-good, dangerous criminals deserving the full force of the law is because of the guilt, perhaps of some of the rich politicians and middle-class well-off people. The politicians divert the minds and attention of the public away from their own corruption and crimes and blame the victims instead of themselves. They steal at an enormous scale, billions of pesos are taken by corrupt politicians every year. They can’t accept that they have created a most unequal society, with .0001 percent of the population owning 70 percent of the wealth. They cause millions of Filipinos to live in poverty without opportunity.

That is why there are hundreds, if not thousands of street kids, now locked up in jails and detention centers unfit for human habitation and even dangerous for animals. Local politicians don’t care and Congresspeople mark them as criminals. That is why so many street children are easily lured into the clutches of human traffickers and sold to the government-approved sex bars and brothels and sold for sex to rich customers. Drug dealing is common and untouchable. Most crimes go unpunished and the real criminals never see the inside of a jail cell, unlike the children.

Most are stunted and a 15-year-old can look like a 10-year-old. The government agencies dedicated to helping these children are the Department of Social welfare and Development and its attached agency, the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC). The JJWC report says that adults commit 98 percent of crimes and only 2 percent were done by minors and most are theft, and this according to police record in 2017.

Those who say the nation is being overwhelmed by a crime wave led by children are out of their mind because they don’t read, think, study and learn the facts. The promoters of punishment for children say wrongly that the children are drug addicts, dealers, and couriers. Yet the government statistics in 2018 show only 7 percent of the wrongful acts of children are drug use, mostly sniffing solvent. Thirty-eight (38) percent of children who allegedly committed these wrongful acts were between 12 to 15 years old.

Local Governments Units (LGU) fail to implement Republic Act 9344 to protect and help children in conflict with the law. The law says they must provide diversion and social assistance before subjecting children to formal legal proceedings and bringing them to court, as the JJWC says they should. In 2018, the JJWC officials visited all 55 operating Bahay Pag-asa facilities; by law, there should be 140 such homes for children in conflict with the law. Tragically, 60 percent of LGUs do not provide homes for children in conflict with the law but lock them in jails; some even mix them with adult prisoners.

Also, in 2016, the regional JJWC visited 319 jails/detention facilities and 474 minors were found in terrible conditions in jails. The JJWC was able to get 14 percent or 66 children released immediately to their parents.

Yet, there is still 60 percent of local governments with no help for the children. They roam the streets or are locked in jails. They suffer bullying, hunger, loneliness and even sexual abuse inside the cells. They have no exercise, entertainment, or schooling. They are deprived of all their rights as children and now the Senate is going to approve a law that puts 12-year-old accused children in jail where they will be beaten and abused too.

We can’t let this happen and we must strive to convince the Senators not to do it. It will be their lasting legacy that allowed children to be hurt, punished, beaten, raped, and abused. Yes, Congressmen and Senators, that will be your legacy and your children and the world will remember it.

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