Manila gives in to citizens' call to protect street kids

"If you are neutral in the situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor." – Desmond Tutu.

On October 12, I was at RAC and took the photo of “Frederico” that has now gone viral.

That night I could not sleep, not knowing whether I had walked away from a dying child after furtively snapping a shot that I knew the government wouldn’t have wanted me to take. I spent the next several days working to find a placement for Frederico that would address his obviously urgent medical needs.

Five days later, I went back to RAC to try and have Frederico released. Within 10 minutes of saying that we could take Frederico, I was given a “gate pass” to sign and effectively given legal custody of this incredibly vulnerable child that I had not even met. I am not licensed as a social worker and was not asked for any identification. A licensed social worker from Bahay Tuluyan who was with me was not asked for identification either.

Frederico had a visible black eye and bruising on his face, beside obvious malnutrition and bone deformities. I asked how he had gotten the black eye and the RAC social workers looked at him as though they had never seen it and shrugged. I asked what medical assistance he had been given and was told “none.”

His whole case file, for the 7 months he was under the custody of RAC, consisted of one sheet of paper – his referral to RAC by a police officer on March 8, 2014, and 5 unfulfilled laboratory request forms from Ospital ng Maynila dated June 6, 2014.

Frederico is now receiving care from an institution catering to sick children. 

In partnership with many other NGOs, we have worked to improve the situation in RAC since 2008. It was apparent that what the government calls “rescue” is perceived by children who experience it as huli (arrest).

Other individuals and organizations have tried to have RAC reformed since 1994.

When we first raised complaints, we were told that these were “isolated cases.” In response, Bahay Tuluyan documented more than 2,000 cases of rescue, revealing its systemic abuse and involuntary, indiscriminate and ineffective system.

Manila’s response

In March 2014, Dr Maria Sheilah H. Lacuna-Pangan, MSWD head wrote to us, assuring us that our recommendations were “well noted.” (READ: Social worker speaks up for 'Frederico')

In October, Bahay Tuluyan wrote to the City of Manila, copy furnishing President Aquino, DOJ, DSWD and CHR. Three weeks after hand delivering those letters we still have not received one written response.

In November, Bahay Tuluyan and other NGOs were invited to a dialogue with Mayor Estrada after he was alerted to the picture of Frederico circulating on social media – mysteriously our letter, hand-delivered to his office, with a copy of Frederico’s picture – was apparently not received by him.

During this dialogue, Estrada expressed his personal concern at seeing the photo of Frederico and insisted that action would be taken.

At the same time, he cited the bankruptcy of Manila as a barrier to change.

Dead child 

In that same meeting on November 10, when confronted with rumors that a child had been killed in RAC, Pangan confirmed that a child was beaten to death by fellow children in RAC in 2013.

Pangan had an “Incident Report” whch was with the City Legal department for consideration. She confirmed that nobody had been prosecuted for this murder, stating that the children involved were “street children.” There was nothing RAC could do to stop them, she said.

Having worked with street children for more than 11 years, I find it very difficult to agree with Pangan’s implication that it’s somehow an inevitable activity of street children to kill each other, and that RAC has no means to prevent this.

If such a tragedy occurs in an NGO, it would be subjected to intense investigation and de-licensing by the DSWD.

If parents allowed children to kill each other, they would be charged with neglect or abuse.

How then is it possible that RAC staff have been allowed to simply wash their hands of murder? Who will answer for this child’s death?

On Monday, Pangan insisted that charges were not filed because the parents didn’t want to pursue the case. I found this response inadequate. It is very likely that the parents feel overwhelmed, helpless, and intimidated after having their child murdered in state care.

Is this a reason to deny them and their child justice?

Anybody can report a crime, with or without the victim’s family’s cooperation. Surely RAC is under an obligation to do so.

Ongoing 'rescues'

Pangan said rescues are conducted at the request of citizens, to address the problem of street children.

We want Pangan to know that we are also concerned citizens and we would also like to see all children in safe and loving homes.

The government’s response to this issue is “Dampot-Bagsak-Labas” (Grab – Dump – Release); children are arbitrarily plucked from the streets and their lives, dumped in RAC to experience the ill treatment there, before being released, often back on the street into the same or worse circumstances from which they came.

They are provided with no follow up or sustainable intervention. No training, education or livelihood. No shelter, family support or psycho-social intervention. They are frequently released back onto the street without even the possessions they began with, their schooling interrupted or stopped and their resistance to authorities heightened.

The cycle is vicious.

One 13-year old boy that Bahay Tuluyan interviewed had been “rescued” 59 times and was on the street at the time he was interviewed.

The issue of children on the street in Manila is not something that can simply be swept away. Street people are people. Not rubbish or stray dogs as they are so often treated.

The reasons people are on the streets are complex and diverse. The solutions they need should be the same; comprehensive, diverse and long-term.

Randomly punishing people by picking them up and dumping them in RAC only entrenches fear, distrust, trauma and resistance and pushes people deeper into poverty.

Alternative approaches

We are often asked what should be done for street children. Our response would be to love them like your own children, care for them as though they were family.

Help them address the issues that have forced them onto the street. Take time to gain their trust and help them to dream their own dreams.

Bahay Tuluyan has countless success stories of children from the street who have become successful, productive and responsible members of our community. We did not achieve this by randomly grabbing them off the street but by walking alongside them and helping them make the journey from abuse and violence to recovery and hope.

The City of Manila has indicated its plans to build a new, upgraded building at RAC in 2015 and claims that it has set aside a budget for this. It has also agreed to set a dialogue with NGOs about how to implement more systemic changes.

We have submitted our proposals to Estrada calling for both RAC and the rescue process to be immediately upgraded to DSWD standards of accreditation. We have also requested that the perpetrators of abuse within RAC be held criminally liable.

Mayor Estrada has assured us that this will be done and we enthusiastically welcome the chance to work with the City of Manila to do this. – Rappler.com

Catherine Scerri is the Deputy Director of Bahay Tuluyan, an NGO promoting children's rights. To learn more or to participate in this movement, you may contact Bahay Tuluyan at +63 2 254 0213 and info@bahaytuluyan.org

You can also sign the change.org petition "Upgrade or Close RAC" here.