Children in conflict with the law: On finding hope and fighting fate

MANILA, Philippines – With Congress pushing for a lower minimum age of criminal responsibility, all eyes are now on children in conflict with the law (CICL). But while they may be portrayed as criminals increasing in number, they are like any other children, just learning about their lives, dreams, and hopes. (READ: Beyond juvenile delinquency: Why children break the law)

The House already passed a bill  seeking to lower the age of criminal liability from the current 15 years old to 12 – higher than the 9 years of age that the committee approved. The bill is still pending at the Senate but has a chance of approval when Congress resumes in May after the 2019 elections. (READ: No time for Congress to pass bill on age of criminal liability before polls)

Critics strongly oppose this, saying there is no scientific evidence that a lower age of criminal responsibility will lead to less crimes. Instead of running after kids, the government should fully implement the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006, which was later amended and strengthened in 2013. (READ: Children in conflict with the law: Cracks in Juvenile Justice Act)

Rappler met Angelo and Vincent, two former CICLs, who were successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, partly due to the proper implementation of the law and the help of their communities.

The two have different cases and backgrounds, and as such, underwent different interventions and programs.

Angelo, now 21, was accused of physical and mental abuse when he was 17. He was subjected to a two-year community-based disposition program.

Vincent, now 18, was accused of frustrated homicide when he was 17 and underwent a diversion program inside Bahay Pag-Asa.

The life and struggles of Vincent, 18

Vincent, then a porter at a tiangge in Malabon, was 17 when he was charged with frustrated homicide. It all happened after work past midnight. Vincent said and his co-workers decided to eat after a hard day’s work but as they made their way to an eatery, they got caught up in a riot.

"We were on our way to the eatery. We later on found out that barangay officials were supposed to stop us because there was an ongoing riot in the area. But they weren't able to catch us.... Two of my friends were mauled. We told the people there, 'We are not your enemies.' I thought the man would shake my hand but he suddenly punched me. My friends got mad and that's when a full-blown riot ensued," Vincent said in Filipino.

During the ruckus, he stabbed another minor in the stomach. The victim survived and charged him with frustrated homicide.

"I was about to be stabbed in the back but I dodged it. The man dropped the knife so I picked it up and stabbed him to defend myself.... I went straight to the barangay hall to seek assistance for my victim. I was brought to the women's desk. At the time, I was even laughing at the police because I thought nothing would happen to me because I was a minor. I apologized to the victim but he did not accept it. I was then brought to Bahay Pag-Asa," he said.

Vincent admitted to being a shabu and marijuana user at the age of 13 and said he would often hurt his parents back then.

He said he reached only third grade because his parents could not afford to send him and his 3 other siblings to school.

At 13, he got his girlfriend pregnant but their baby died after 6 and a half months. Prior to entering Bahay Pag-Asa, they had another baby, who is now over a year old.

"I started taking drugs at 13 years old. It continued for 3 years. My mother would always lecture me. She would tell me that I was already so thin that I might get swept by the wind. She would cry but I would just swear at her. I would always talk back to my father. My siblings and I always fight. We had our first child, maybe the kid died at 6-and-a-half months because of that. I only cared about my vices," he said in Filipino.

Vincent stayed at Valenzuala City’s Bahay Pag-Asa for 7 months.

While lawmakers, in pushing for their bill, said CICLs would not be kept in jails with adult criminals, the conditions in Bahay Pag-Asa are still difficult for children. Conditions depend on the quality of centers built by local government units.

“Marami po akong natutunan sa Bahay Pag-Asa pero mahirap pa rin po dahil siyempre 'di mo na kayang gawin mga ginagawa mo sa labas. Mahirap po mag-adjust (I learned a lot at Bahay Pag-Asa but it was still difficult because of course you could not do what you're used to doing outside. It was difficult to adjust)," he said.

This is why for some cases, community-based rehabilitation is implemented. Kristina Ramos, a social worker in Valenzuela City, said the rehabilitation of a CICL depends on the child’s situation and background. Some children would work well in a community-based program, while others like Vincent, without a solid support system, are better off inside Bahay Pag-Asa.

Ramos said they have yet to see a Bahay Pag-Asa with a school. Currently, CICLs in these centers are subjected to the Department of Education’s Alternative Learning System.

"We are preparing them to become responsible citizens. How can they be if they will get used to one facility? Even if it's Bahay Pag-Asa, their movements are still restricted there," Ramos said in Filipino.

The court ordered Vincent to first undergo a diversion program before deciding on the case. A CICL needs to undergo it after the minor is found liable, without having to resort to formal court proceedings.

Transformation, paying for damages

As part of his diversion program, Vincent had to attend activities and seminars on therapeutic communication, anger management, life skills, and parenting, among others.

Vincent himself saw his transformation. If it weren’t for the support of the local government and social workers, he said he wouldn't know where he would end up in. 

Vincent noted his personal improvement after he entered Bahay Pag-Asa. "There are no vices there. You need to follow them. They respect and understand us. They are also kind to us. With the help of God, maybe it happened to me because I needed to change my life," Vincent recalled.

"My life had no direction. It's was like a dead end for me. I neglected my family. I had no tinge of hope in my life.... If I did not enter the facility, I might be stuck in my old ways until now. I'm thankful to them. Without them, my second chance in life would not be successful," he added in Filipino.

Ramos shared the same view and cited Vincent's transformation in the youth center. This, she said, prompted the court to cut short his program to 7 months. On January 2018, he was set free.

CHANGE. Vincent with social worker Kristina Ramos, who was among those who helped guide him

CHANGE.

Vincent with social worker Kristina Ramos, who was among those who helped guide him

But there was one condition before the case against him was fully dismissed: He had to pay P37,000 as civil damages to the victim. He had to settle this within 7 months upon release from detention.

Since Vincent could not rely on his parents – he even pays for his family’s expenses to date – he had to work extra hard to earn the amount he needed.

He worked different jobs all at once and earned an average of P350 daily. He recalled how he prioritized saving for the payment over his family’s needs.

"As soon as I was released from Bahay Pag-Asa, I worked as a flagman each noon and helped the flow of traffic. At night, I would sell items. During Saturdays and Sundays, I would work at the markets in Malabon.... I endured it because I wanted to finish the payment," Vincent said in Filipino.

"There were times I badly needed to use the money to pay for my kid’s diapers but I could not do anything. I still gave the money to the complainant. I just improvised and used clothes as diaper for my child."

On August 1, 2018, all his hard work paid off, as he finished paying for the damages. The case against him was dismissed.

"It was my fault. I worked hard to earn that huge amount of money even if it was hard. Sometimes I thought I was wasting that money but I just continued. My kid served as my inspiration to finish the payment,"  Vincent said.

The harsh reality of the streets is not lost on Vincent. Now that he is free, Vincent said he will not look back. There were times, he said, when his friends would try to lure him back to his old life but he said he would not dare go revert to his old self again.

Asked how he does it, Vincent said in Filipino: "We had a senior parent, Sir Manuel – he was the one who guided us inside. He told me that getting out of Bahay Pag Asa is not easy because there were other children who returned to the center after being released because of failed diversion. So I asked him, what advice can you give me? He told me to apply whatever I learned inside Bahay Pag-Asa to the outside world."

This, Ramos said, is a perennial challenge for CICLs. After all, with CICLs back on the streets, with nothing and no one to support them, they are left to fight their own battles. But with proper monitoring of children, Ramos said it could be addressed.

The social workers are still in touch with Vincent. The Valenzuela City Child Protection Center is even considering getting him to work for them.

Truly, for Vincent, hope resides in Bahay Pag-Asa.

Meet Angelo

Angelo, 21, was 17 years old when he was accused of physical and mental abuse by his former girlfriend.

Unlike Vincent, Angelo has a stable family who provides him with his needs and wants.

Angelo’s case shows how children, regardless of social status and background, commit mistakes in life. Ramos, also the social worker monitoring Angelo, said it's normal for children to commit mistakes and that adults and society should help them recover.

At 17, Angelo got his former girlfriend pregnant. Both pressured, they considered aborting the baby. In the end, however, they decided against it, but not without physically hurting each other in the process.

"Maybe we were so confused and pressured when we found out she was pregnant, because she was pressured to find a good job to support her mother and father. So we thought that if we would have a child, it would be a hindrance to our future. We both thought of abortion, but I don’t blame her because I also made a mistake and wanted it," Angelo said in Filipino.

Angelo admitted hitting his girlfriend, who then filed a case against him. He pleaded guilty.

The court found him guilty but the sentence was suspended because he was a minor. The court instead ordered a two-year disposition program, which included curfew, life skills and parenting seminars, psychotherapy, anti-child abuse seminars, and other offense-specific activities. His parents were also asked to participate.

Angelo was also ordered to give financial assistance to his daughter.

Ramos said the social workers and the judge saw that Angelo was a candidate for community-based rehabilitation because he and his family had been cooperative from the start.

Role of parents, community

As is the practice, the rehabilitation program of a child depends on his or her situation. While Angelo was fortunate to have a supportive family, most CICLs like Vincent are not as lucky.

Angelo’s mother Angela told Rappler that the experience was very “traumatic” for their family. But they had to stand by their son and help him get back on his feet.

"Of course as a parent, as a mommy, it was painful because you guided him all throughout his childhood but he ended that way," Angela said.

Asked what the roles of parents are in such cases, she said in Filipino: "Parents really have a huge role in rehabilitating children because, of course, they are the ones to guide children, the role models. When the child sees that you are present and that you understand him….Of course, it’s your own child, you know him more than anyone. Of course, parents can help their children change."

This is among the reasons, Angela said, why she and her husband are against the proposal to lower the age of criminal liability.

"I am not in favor of that because we could not blame the kid for whatever he did. Sometimes children do it by force. They have a reason for that. Isn’t hugot the word of kids these days? So from then, you should know where your child is coming from and understand why he is feeling what he is feeling," Angela said in a mix of English and Filipino.

She said that if the bill is passed into law, younger children would have to attend court hearings and bear witness to the criminal justice system. It was already too painful for them and their 17-year-old son, how much more for younger kids?

The Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP) shared the same view and said exposing a child to the criminal justice system – or simply labeling a child a criminal – “will more likely establish the criminal identity of the young person.” (READ: Why experts strongly oppose lowering the age of criminal responsibility)

Success story

In the end, Angelo was able to comply with his two-year program and was cleared of charges.

It was not easy, as he said he lost the will and desire to study and live, thinking he no longer had a chance of having a bright future. But that, he said, changed when he underwent the program.

Every now and then, he would still visit the social workers who helped him survive the darkest phase of his life.

"Maybe this happened to me because God wanted me to mature in life. Because at that time, I was a happy-go-lucky person, with no direction in life. I felt I would not be able to graduate from college," Angelo said in Filipino.

What advice then would he give his younger self, if he only knew what he knows now?

"I realized now I should think twice before doing anything. We should not get carried away by emotions and by what people say."

Now Angelo is determined to make a better life for himself and his daughter. He is set to graduate from college this year and is about to go to the United States to take an internship at a hotel there.

Desire for change

After finishing their programs, the struggles of CICLs are not over.

Vincent is now back to the harsh environment that prompted him to go astray, while Angelo is back to a clean slate with his family, trying to move forward.

Vincent and Angelo may have different backgrounds, but both made mistakes that could have altered their lives without proper guidance. But despite their past, they aim for change and improvement.

It is, however, a continuing process which involves the family, the youth, and the community.

Even after the program, the tasks of social workers and parents in the rehabilitation of CICLs are not over. Monitoring is critical, said Ramos.

While the two were fortunate enough to land in Valenzuela – among the few cities with the best practices in dealing with CICLs – others ended up elsewhere.

In 2016, Rappler reported the poor condition of CICLs in youth centers in Caloocan. Other children in other areas suffer the same fate, with no decent spaces to rest, play, learn, and socialize in – in short, to be just kids. There are also not enough social workers to guide CICLs. (READ: When 'Houses of Hope' fail children in conflict with the law)

The Juvenile Justicee Welfare Center said the current number of rehabilitation houses was nowhere near the total 140 needed to be built. (READ: Senators hit LGUs' lack of funding for youth detention, rehab centers)

INTERVENTION. Children in conflict with the law inside Yakap-Bata Holding Center in Caloocan in November 2016. Rappler sourced photo

INTERVENTION. Children in conflict with the law inside Yakap-Bata Holding Center in Caloocan in November 2016.

Rappler sourced photo

With Congress pushing to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, lawmakers are also eyeing to transfer the responsibility of building and managing Bahay Pag-Asa from the local government units, as mandated by the current law, to the national government. The funding would be included in the yearly budget.

Whether or not this would solve the lack of centers and facilities remains to be seen. After all, the law has not been fully and properly implemented yet – among the reasons that critics cite.

As lawmakers debate on the MACR they think children deserve, kids like Vincent and Angelo continue to be exposed to environments that put them on a collision course with the law. While CICLs seek hope in their darkest hours, there's a call to make it easier for them to find it. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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