Lost and found in Valenzuela

Fritzie Rodriguez
What happens when one is forced to choose between an abusive home or a life in the streets? LGUs must step up to intervene. Here's what Valenzuela City is doing

BEST FRIENDS. Carol and Juliana have been staying in Valenzuela's Bahay Kalinga for almost a year, but none of their relatives have claimed or visited them. All photos by Fritzie Rodriguez/Rappler.com

MANILA, Philippines – They sat in silence, waiting for the other to tell a story. Carol began mumbling and Juliana listened intently. Carol uttered words only Juliana seemed to understand.

They are best friends, although neither of them knows the other’s past nor age. “Dito kami nagkakilala (We met here),” Juliana whispered.

Both women used to roam the streets. They have no address, no families, no memories.

On the other side of the room was Benigna who longed for her missing 7-year-old son. “Mahahanap ko ba siya (Will I find him)?” she asked. Benigna claimed that she walked from Bicol to Manila for 3 days after losing her son.

Meanwhile, the men in the adjacent room were more somber. “I am Hesus,” an old man said. “I contacted my son in Facebook, but no reply.” It has been a year since he had a stroke; his son never visited.

Hesus sat next to a man who wished to fly to California. “May kamag-anak ako ‘dun (I have a relative there),” the man said.

The Valenzuela City Senior’s Dormitory is home to 30 abandoned elderly Filipinos.

Carol and Juliana stepped out to watch children play, perhaps reminiscing their own youth. Next to their dormitory are two other centers housing over a hundred children; one for the abused and abandoned, and another for children in conflict with the law (CICL).

Young, old

Abuse knows no age.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reported 5,554 cases of child abuse in 2012 alone; including abandonment, neglect, sexual and physical exploitation. Abuse among the elderly also exists, though statistics are unavailable.

As of 2012, poverty incidence among Filipino senior citizens was at 16.2%, which barely changed since 2006, the National Statistics Coordination Board showed. Poverty among children also remained unchanged at 35.2%. (READ: Kids not in kindergarten)

For some, life in the Philippines can be tough, from infancy to old age.

Philippine laws concerning abused children require local government units (LGUs) – in partnership with concerned government agencies – to provide necessary recovery programs:

  • Temporary shelters
  • Counseling, psychosocial services
  • Livelihood, medical, legal assistance

Meanwhile, the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010 (RA 9994) seeks to provide similar government assistance to the elderly. (READ: Poor, old, hungry)

Despite such laws, many remain helpless. Some are brought to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or government-run facilities. Many of them, however, are forced to choose between an abusive home or a life in the streets.

Some choose neither, opting for a more permanent escape. A 2012 UNICEF study highlighted a possible link between child maltreatment and suicidal thoughts, adding that those with a history of child abuse may have higher risks of “suicide ideation” as adults.          

Children, conflict

Some abused children are also in conflict with the law. As of 2009, there were over 8,000 CICLs, according to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council. Majority of cases involved theft, mostly found in the National Capital Region.

Under Philippine laws, CICL – those aged 15 or younger – are exempted from criminal liability, but subjected to intervention programs. CICLs with no guardians are placed under the care of NGOs and youth centers managed by DSWD or LGUs.

The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (Republic Act 9344) requires LGUs to provide appropriate juvenile intervention programs. Before its enactment, children as young as 9 could be arrested and detained together with adult prisoners, exposing them to more harm than rehabilitation.

In 2010, the law was amended to require all provinces and highly-urbanized cities to establish a “Bahay Pag-asa (House of Hope),” a 24-hour institution providing short-term residential care for CICLs. LGUs are expected to comply, but not all do.

Kalinga, Pag-asa

Valenzuela City’s Bahay Pag-asa was launched in 2012, but as early as 2000, the city – in partnership with the We Care Foundation – has already been operating “Bahay Kalinga (House of Care),” a crisis center for foundlings, abused children, and senior citizens. In 2004, Kalinga was fully turned over to the LGU.

Kalinga and Pag-asa are city-funded. They provide dietary and medical services, counseling, and education.

The centers, in partnership with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, provide legal assistance to its residents. Many psychology and nursing students from nearby colleges also volunteer at the centers.

Although meant to serve as temporary shelters, many residents stay for a year or more. 

“The older kids or those with disabilities, who will adopt them? Nobody. The abandoned, their families don’t claim them,” Bernardino Bautista, Center Head, said. “It’s getting difficult to maintain the centers since many overstay.”

There are a few cases, however, in which an abandoned child or elderly was returned home. “But first we evaluate if it’s safe to return them to their families. If so, we provide transportation. If not, we keep them here,” Bautista said.

To address the overpopulation problem, Bautista said they sent DSWD referrals for adoption, but procedures have been rather slow. “But I can’t blame DSWD. That’s reality, it’s hard to find people willing to adopt,” he added.

The centers have a centralized kitchen managed by in-house cooks. “We serve balanced meals,” Sarah Velasco, a Kalinga social worker, said. “We also simulate a home life, each of them have tasks.”

Some are assigned to look after the vegetable gardens or the chickens and ducks – projects which help supply the center’s meals. They also participate in a T-shirt printing livelihood project.

Each center is managed by a group of female and male “house parents” who look after the residents. “This simulates a family environment,” Bautista said. Recreational activities include field trips, talent portions, arts and sports, and pop quizzes on news and current events.

Aside from nutrition, values, and hygiene lessons, the center conducts an Alternative Learning System (ALS). “It’s tiring, but the children need me,” said Antionio Santor, the center’s sole in-house teacher. Center head Bautista admitted that they need more personnel.

The Department of Education agreed to provide one ALS teacher for the centers; however, the teacher rarely comes, according to Bautista.

Bautista, a social worker since the 1980s, stressed that CICLs are also children whose rights need to be protected. “They are victims too, they need guidance.” He also called on Filipinos to make an effort to look after their aging parents.

Bautista said that Valenzuela aims to be a more “child-friendly city.” He praised the local governments of Pasig and Mandaluyong for setting good examples. He hopes that other LGUs can follow suit. 

Benigna told everyone that she will be going home tomorrow. The center has located her husband and soon, they will be reunited. Carol and Juliana smiled and wondered if they will ever be as lucky. In the meantime, the best friends continued watching over the children playing.  Rappler.com

For more information on Valenzuela City’s Bahay Kalinga and Bahay Pag-asa, you may reach them at 292-1662 or info@valenzuela.gov.ph. They accept donations such as rice, staple food, and toiletries. They also need help locating the families of their residents.

How can we help fight hunger? Recommend NGOs, report what your LGU is doing, or suggest creative solutions. E-mail us at move.ph@rappler.com. Be part of the #HungerProject.