Beyond juvenile delinquency: Why children break the law

Part 1 of 3

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – They could just be any other teenage boys but theirs is a story too early and heavy for most to handle – including themselves. Three serious crimes. Three suspects. Three children in conflict with the law (CICL).

Andy*, raised by his aunt and uncle, was about to sleep after a long day’s work in the market. He was to get his only pillow from the other room when he saw his 7-year-old cousin and adoptive sister sleeping on the bed.

“Matutulog na po ako noon mga alas-dose na. Kumuha lang po ako ng unan, nakita ko po siya nakahiga. Nakaramdam po ako ng talagang init ng katawan. Doon ko nagawa yung hindi po dapat,” Andy said. (I was about to sleep then, around 12 midnight. I was just getting my pillow when I saw her sleeping on the bed. I felt my body heat up. That's when I did something I should not have done.) 

Andy admitted raping her 3 times. But it was only 5 months after, in February 2015, when his adoptive parents learned about it. At the tender age of 16, Andy was accused of statutory rape. If he weren’t a child, the crime would have been punishable by reclusion perpetua or imprisonment from 20 years and 1 day to 40 years, depending on the severity of the case.

Now 18 years old, he has been staying at Bahay Pag-Asa in Valenzuela City, a youth detention center, for a year and 9 months now.

Just like Andy, 17-year-old Bernard* has been staying in the center for over a year. He is facing charges of robbery in band with his two older brothers and a friend for stealing, while carrying weapons, brand new flat screen television sets from a truck.

His brothers aged 21 and 24 are detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. If Bernard weren’t a minor, he might face reclusion temporal or imprisonment for 12 years and 1 day to 20 years.

Their modus operandi, he said, is to jump over trucks plying the roads of Valenzuela to steal items – from boxes of milk, canned goods, cheese, to appliances – which they would then sell.

Bernard admitted being a shabu user since he was 13 years old. He would use the money from his “job” to buy drugs.

Bernard said he reached Grade 5 only since he did not see the need to continue his studies. After all, for him, he was already earning money from stealing.

“Nagtatrapik po ako simula 12 years old, trabaho ko po maging ganun. Hanggang sa nakakita po at napasama po ako, nabarkada po. Ako po napapasama sa kanila hanggang sa naging trabaho ko na maging magnanakaw, naisip ko po siguro mas malaki kumita sa ganoon," he said.

(I used to traffic in the streets starting at 12 years old, that was my job. Until I joined a group of friends and stealing also became my job. I thought to myself that maybe I could earn more by doing that.)

In the nearby city of Caloocan, 18-year-old Carl* is detained at the Yakap-Bata Holding Center. He, together with 3 of his friends, is accused of murder for killing a member of a rival gang in 2014 – a crime punishable by reclusion perpetua.

“Magkaharap lang yung eskinita naming magkalabang gang, nakita namin sa dulo na nagvi-videoke sila. May pinapunta kaming isang bata, pinatingnan namin kung may mga babae. Bumalik po yung bata at sinabing walang babae. Nag-ano na kami ng oras kung kailan namin sila aanuhin (babarilin). Inikot-ikot namin at tiningnan kung may mga mainit sa lugar. So yun po, pagkadilim po mga 11 pm, dun po namin sila pinagbabaril,” he said.

(Our gang's alley is just in front of our rival gang's. We saw them at the other end, singing videoke. We asked a kid to go there and check if there were women. The child came back and said there was none. That's when we decided when to shoot them. We first roamed around the area to check if there were authorities. Then when it was already dark, around 11 pm, we started shooting them.)

At 15 then, Carl said they rejoiced after they gunned down one “enemy.”

“Masaya po kami. Syempre may bumagsak sa kanila eh. Nakaisa kami syempre kapusukan po namin noon,” he said.

(We were happy because of course, somebody was gunned down from their side. We got them. That was at the height of our impulsiveness.)

Carl was detained at the center a week before his then 18-year-old girlfriend gave birth to their daughter. He admits to using marijuana since he was in Grade 5. He quit school in Grade 7 and had since found a living by stealing.

The 3 are just some of the over 11,000 CICL as of 2009, according to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC). These are children “accused or adjudged of committing an offense under Philippine laws.”

Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006 sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old – meaning those between 15 to 18 years old may be detained in youth centers and be put through rehabilitation programs. Those under 15 years old are exempted from criminal liability and undergo intervention.

Prior to this law, children were locked up in jails together with adults even for petty offenses. They were vulnerable to abuse during arrest and detention. An average of 10,515 children were arrested every year, the Department of Social Welfare and Development reported in 2014. (READ: On 2nd chances: Children in conflict with the law)

In 2012, RA 10630 was passed to amend the previous law. The new legislation allows children as young as 12 years old to be held criminally liable for serious crimes such as rape and murder, among others.

The law also mandates that local government units establish “houses of hope” or Bahay Pag-asa to offer rehabilitation, diversion, and intervention.

Calls to further lower the age of criminal responsibility were revived after President Rodrigo Duterte himself proposed it. Duterte and his allies want kids 9 years old and above to be criminally liable, saying children are being used by syndicates for crimes.

Dysfunctional family, poverty, environment

All 3 boys have one thing in common – a dysfunctional family and an environment conducive to crimes, as most children involved come from poor families.

Andy has no family to call his own. He does not know where his father, mother, and 4 siblings are. His father, a drug pusher, he said, left them early on with his eldest sibling. His mother went to Bicol in 2012 and took with her the other 3, with the promise of enrolling them in schools. It turned out, however, that she only made them work, he said.

“Mga kapatid ko tumakas sa nanay ko. Nagtrabaho sila. Napaaga nag-asawa yung isang babae. Dun po ako nabubuwisit, nagtanim ng galit, yung kinabukasan ng anak niya sinira nya. Mas lalo naging magulo pamilya namin,” he said with a straight face.

(My siblings escaped from my mother. They worked. One sister married early. That's what annoys me, and makes me so mad, she destroyed the future of her children. She wrecked our family.)

When he sought the help of his relatives early on, he recalled with a stern voice how his grandmother supposedly shooed him away.

“Kamag-anak ko sila. Sila lang inaasahan ko na makakaintindi sa akin, pero di pala po. Mali po inaasahan ko. Yun pala sasabihin nila sa 'kin dagdag palamunin po ako,” he said.

(They are my relatives. They are the only ones who I thought could understand me, but I was wrong. Instead they told me that I am just another burden, another mouth to feed.)

Bernard’s brothers are repeat offenders as children and were mainstays at the youth detention center. Now as adults, they are serving time in an ordinary prison cell.

“Kuya ko kasi magmula bata ako nakikita ko na tambay. Nakikita ko na ganun trabaho nila, kumikita sila, syempre ako, di pa ako legal na nakakasama. Ayaw nila ako magaya sa kanila, gusto nila makapagtapos ako, pero sinuway ko rin po sila,” Bernard said.

(Ever since I was young, I've been seeing my brother just hanging around. I saw that it was his job and they were earning. Of course, then, I was not legally able to join them. They did not want me to be like them, they wanted me to finish school but in the end, I disobeyed them.)

Carl’s brother has also been involved in crimes. Their neighborhood, he said, has also been his main source of marijuana and illegal firearms.

Social worker Mary June Paundog said 99% of the CICL in Valenzuela’s Bahay Pag-asa have the same situation. And more often than not, she said these are the main reasons for the children’s behavior.

DSWD has also observed that most CICL come from poor families and have stopped schooling. Most are males between 14 to 17 years old, but some cases involve much younger children.

“Given the situation na maayos ang family mo, nakakagawa ka nga nang di maganda. Paano na lang kung nandoon ka sa sitwasyon nila – na siksikan sa bahay, walang makain, pati lolo at lola nagtutulak, yung bahay pinatong lang sa putikan. Ano option mo sa ganun?” Paundog told Rappler.

(Given the situation that you come from a good family, you can still do something bad. How much more if you are in these children's situation – cramped house, with no food to eat, with even grandparents selling drugs, the house just practically put on top of mud. What are your options in that case?)

Paundog said such unfortunate situations have hardened CICL, observing that many kids upon entering the center looked way older than their age. But as they undergo rehabilitation and counseling, one could see they are just children – longing for parents, friends, and playtime.

Social worker Rowelyn Acdog shared the same belief that the problem usually starts at home, only to be aggravated by the environment the child lives in.

“Bakit nakagawa ng crime? Because they are neglected by their parents. Dysfunctional family and parents, malamang ang tendency ang anak ay magiging dysfunctional din. Una sa parents, then sa environment naa-adapt nila,” Acdog said.

(Why did they commit crime? Because they are neglected by their parents. If the family and parents are dysfunctional, there is a tendency that the child would become dysfunctional, too. First is the parents and then the environment they adapt to.)

Hopes and dreams

Just like any children, Andy, Carl, and Bernard have hopes and dreams for themselves and their families.

Despite the situation, Paundog said CICL’s love for their family is still evident. In fact, that even pushed them to commit crimes and, eventually, motivated them to change while inside the center.

“Mahal nila pamilya nila. Nakikita nila gutom ang kapatid, binubugbog ang nanay. Yung minsan binatilyo na, may mga crushes na yan. Siyempre ayaw na gusgusin sila. Gusto nila kahit G-shock na peke kaya ninanakaw nila. Ganoong petty things. Kung kinaya sana ng pamilya ma-provide, maiiwasan,” she said.

(They love their family. They see their siblings getting hungry, their mothers being hit. Sometimes, because they are teenagers, they already have crushes. Of course, they want to appear presentable. They want G-shocks even if they are fake so they steal. Petty things like that. If the family was able to provide those, the crimes could have been avoided.)

Andy said he has nothing but remorse and regret for his actions. Until now, he has not yet fully accepted that he violated the family who took him in as their own.

“Katagalan po nagsisi na rin po ako. Hanggang ngayon di ko rin po matanggap. Pinagpaplanuhan ko kung paano po ako hihingi ng tawad, paano ko ihaharap sarili ko sa pamilya ng nagalaw ko. Kaso nahihirapan po ako. Kailangan ko po siguro buong lakas na humarap sa kanila at tanggapin kung anong gagawin nila dahil kasalanan ko,” he said of the family who even considered legally adopting him.

(Eventually, I regretted what I did. Until now I still could not accept it. I have been planning how I would ask for their forgiveness, how I would face the family of my victim. But I am having a difficult time. Maybe I should find the strength to face them and accept whatever they want to do to me because it was my fault.)

He has focused his attention on drawing, with the center enrolling him in an art class. He wants to be better at it so he could get a job after serving his time in detention.

With no family, Andy said he only has himself to rely on. Now part of the government's Alternative Learning System, he is positive he would be able to finish high school.

“Di ko iniisip na wala po akong pamilya. Ang iniintindi ko na lang po ngayon kung paano maaayos ang buhay ko kasi ako na lang po tutulong sa sarili ko. Pag-aaral na lang makakatulong sa akin para maayos buhay ko,” he said.

(I do not dwell on the fact that I don't have a family. All I care about now is how to fix my life because I am the only one who can help myself. Studying is the only way I can help fix my life.)

Like Andy, Bernard has nothing but hope and dreams for his future.

“Dito ko lang po nalaman mga kamalian ko. Dito ko po naisip ang mga ginawa ko, malaking kasalanan po. Napag-isip-isip ko po, pagpaplanuhan ko para sa pamilya ko,” he said.

(It is only in here where I realized what I did was wrong. I thought about what I did and the major sins I committed. I realized I should plan ahead for my family.)

He dreams of becoming a doctor. But his practical wish, he said, is to finish high school.

“Sana po makapagtapos para pagdating ng panahon, matapos ng high school at magtatrabaho. Simple lang po, magkaroon lang po ng maayos na trabaho para sa 'kin."

(I hope to finish high school so I could get a job. It's just simple, to get a good job for myself.)

For Carl, his stay inside Yakap-Bata has not been an easy ride. He has been subject of complaints from other youth and their parents for physical injuries and threats. In fact, he was sent to Boys Town after he became a risk to other CICL.

But now, Carl said he is keen on changing – not just for himself but for his 2-year-old daughter.

“Ayoko na ulitin ho pinagsisihan ko na. Pinagdadasal ko na sana patawarin ako." (I don't want to do it again, I have repented. I pray that they will forgive me for what I've done.)

“Syempre ayoko maging katulad ko ang anak ko. Gusto ko maayos siya, may takot sa Diyos. 'Wag siya magiging katulad ko. Ayun lang kasi mahal na mahal ko siya eh,” a teary-eyed Carl said.

(Of course, I do not want my daughter to be like me. I want her to grow up properly, with fear of God. She should not be like me. That's all because I love her so much.)

Painful realities

While they all share positive prospects ahead, the future of children in conflict with the law remains uncertain. It is easy to change under a controlled and healthy place. But once they are released, they will be back in their harmful environment, with a possible chance of committing crimes again.

“Na-rehabilitate namin dito, pero yun pala yung magulang pala ang kailangan i-rehabilitate dahil drug pusher, user. Kasi 'pag nandito sila, structured ito, may bantay, di nakakalabas, less temptation at bisyo, 'pag labas di nasu-sustain yun,” Paundog said.

(We rehabilitated a kid here, but it turns out, the parents were the ones in need of rehabilitation because they were drug pushers, users. Because when children are here, it is structured, they have guards and house parents, they could not go out, there are less temptations and vices. When they go out, it's not sustained.)

Some children even opt to remain in the shelter to get their basic needs. There are even cases, Paundog said, when released kids come knocking on the center’s gate again.

“Ilang months lang, naibalik dito dahil walang makain, walang matulugan. Minsan nga nakauwi na, mangangatok rito. 'Puwede makitulog, Sir? Buti pa na di ako uuwi, wala akong maayos na tulugan doon. Dito sa facility, 3 meals may meryenda pa, twice a day,'" she said.

(After just a few months, they come back here again because they have nothing to eat, nothing to sleep on. Sometimes, after already going home, they would come knocking again. 'Can I sleep here again, Sir? It's better that I do not go home, I don't have a decent place to sleep in there. Here in the facility, I have 3 meals with snacks, twice a day.)

Is there a future for children in conflict with the law? With the law focusing on rehabilitation and intervention, it seems that the only help these children get are those from institutions mandated to take them in and care for them. Out of these centers – on the harsh streets with no one else – they have nothing. (To be continued) – 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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