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From law breakers to law enforcers
Cebu police lead way in diversion program
for kids accused of crime

These are stories
that touch our hearts,
keep us grounded
to what we have
always believed in ---
children have rights.


They are after all
our future.

 

By Malou Mangahas
UNICEF provides assistance to the Cebu City government in managing a diversion program for children in conflict with the law.

EGMEDIO (Bill) Felisan Jr., 35, and Roel Sarnejo, 32, have turned a new leaf. Both minor law offenders in their youth, in their adult life, they have chosen to become law enforcers.

As young boys, they walked the streets and the piers of Cebu City, pilfering money or goods or wares from vendors and passersby, for food or for gambling.

Today, as fathers with two children each, they walk the same streets as men of the Cebu City police. Bill is the liaison officer of the police's Community Scouts Youth Guidance Center, and Roel, a traffic officer.

One story -- of rescue and renewal, with nudge and push from the community -- binds Bill, Roel and the quiet success that is Cebu's Community Scouts. Born 22 years ago as the Cebu City police's juvenile section, the Center has assisted over a thousand Cebu children in conflict the law, in their journey back to good citizenship. "Diversion" is how the Center calls its program to give child offenders a second chance at life.

An early life of petty crimes
Bill was in sixth grade when the Cebu police launched "Operation Fishnet" to rid the city of its teeming vagrant population. The operation snared Bill, two younger brothers and seven other boys. "Tinik daw kami sa lipunan [They said we're a thorn on the side of society]," Bill recalls. By then, Bill had started to skip classes at the Tejeros public school, hanging out at the pier with boys pilfering veggies or grains being loaded off the boats. Their loot, they sold to whomsoever would buy. "Siga kami sa pier nuon [We were the hotshots of the pier]," he says.

The eldest of seven children bred in poverty in Bantayan island, Roel was lured to petty gambling also in his sixth grade. He had lost interest in his studies but still went to school to run a backyard vice ring that drew other boys, using his 25-centavo daily allowance as capital.

It was 1981. The Cebu police's juvenile section had formed a task force to get children off the streets, particularly the "rugby boys," the vagrants, the orphaned and abandoned, and those who snatch wallets or market produce, says Police Captain Teresita Ayag, then a rookie but now director of the Center. Ayag and husband Teodoro, a retired police superintendent, had worked with as veritable father and mother to the boys for most of the Center's existence.

Bill was in first batch of 10 boys admitted in the Center, and Roel, in the second batch of 15. At the start, all that the city mayor could assure them were the essentials -- an old carnival yard near the pier as makeshift home, and water and power services. The city could not then afford to cover their meals.

Life skills training
To sustain the boys, Ayag said the police secured a job contract with Pepsi Cola Company for the Center. The boys washed Pepsi softdrink bottles by hand, for a token fee of 25 centavos per bottle, or six pesos (P6) per 24-bottle case. "Parang naglalaro lang ang mga bata [It was just like the boys were playing]," Ayag says. Part of the income went to feeding the household, and the balance, deposited in separate bank savings accounts that were opened for the boys. The job contract had yet another windfall: The empty bottles came with bottles filled with softdrinks, a welcome treat for the boys. "Kahit walang ulam, okay lang sa kanila basta may Pepsi [They did not mind that we'd have no viand on occasion so long as they had Pepsi]," Ayag recounts.

In time, the Center and the boys launched many other livelihood projects. The boys raised hogs, ducks and goats, planted vegetables, wove buri, did carpentry, welded chairs and plant holders, made hollow blocks, crafted fashion accessories, and cultured earthworms. The boys were trained in the scout patrol system, organized as troops and registered with the Boy Scouts of the Philippines. They learned as well to do washing and cooking chores.

Scout leaders were designated for various duties -- Bill led the vermiculture project, and Roel, the vegetable garden project. The boys took turns guarding the center at night, and worked on their livelihood and house chores until noon. After a modest lunch shared like a feast for all, they rested until 5 p.m. to prepare for evening school. In the Center's early years, the boys, though mostly in their early teens, had to restart mostly as graders in the city's public schools.

And return to school they did with a vengeance. A number of the boys like Bill and Roel earned grades so good they were often exempted from final exams, made it to the honors roll, or were accelerated to higher grades. A placement test he took in second year high school moved Bill straight up to college. "We worked harder at our studies," Roel recalls.

But because Cebu City had no public high schools and colleges by then, the Center asked the Rotary Club to send those marching on to higher levels of education on scholarship. The fund allowed Roel to finish a two-year vocational course at the University of the Visayas, and Bill, a bachelor's degree in Industrial Technology at the Javellana College of Arts and Trade. Bill had wanted to be a soldier but changed his plan after passing the entrance exam to the Philippine National Police Academy.

Ayag says the Center's administrators have a minimum goal for the children. "Our target is for them to finish high school at least so we can recommend them for jobs."

In hindsight, Bill and Roel point to the good and bad relationships they fostered with adults that sent them astray as children, but also led them back to doing right.

With a mother given to gambling and a father -- a laborer at the pier -- who was given to drink, Bill grew up almost entirely by his own devices.

From age 9 to 13, he was a "istambay" or bum at the pier. With other boys his age, Bill met oncoming boats, egging passengers to toss a coin or two in their direction. A coin sent the boys in a race to the depths of the waters. When their harvest of coins was lean, the boys stole copra (desiccated coconut), corn, and whatever else they could sell for a few more coins. They competed for coins to be able to buy what they thought then was the best treat a boy could have -- a piece of ice candy.

But fear gripped Bill on the day the police came to arrest him and his friends. "Akala namin isa-salvage na kami [We thought we would be summarily executed]." The police brought the boys to the former site of the White Gold Department Store and a carnival, a deserted stretch of land in suburban Cebu where bodies of salvaging victims often showed up.

From street-smart to being really smart
Adapting to the rules and chores of the Community Scouts was hardest on Bill and other boys snatched from the streets and a life of almost total, if false, freedom. "Sa kalsada, walang rules. '''Yung gusto mo lang. Bahala ka kung kailan ka gigising o matutulog, pero 'di sigurado kung kailan ka kakain [On the streets, there are no rules, except what you want to do. You decide when you want to wake up, when you want to sleep]."

One the streets, "you can do anything pero patago-tago [You can do anything but you are constantly on the run].

The downside is the illusion of freedom did not offer a certain reality of eating meals at the right time. "Kung may pera ka, may pagkain [If you have money, you have food]."

In contrast, the Center offered Bill and his friends three regular meals and snacks, while government and private donors are often generous with school supplies, old clothes and slippers. An initial plan by Bill and his friends to bolt the Center never pushed through. Over the last 22 years, Bill has embraced the Center as his home, and the Ayag couple, his foster parents.

Today as the Community Scouts' liaison officer and "kuya" or elder brother to the boys, living witness to the value of giving child offenders a second chance.

Apart from serving them his life's lessons, Bill engages the boys in fun rounds of basketball, volleyball, and sipa. Hope, he says, is the singular message he stresses to the children. "Minsan, parang masisiraan ka na ng loob pero huwag kayoing susuko [Sometimes, you'd feel like your situation is hopeless but don't ever give up]. Bill gives the boys periodic pep talks but also regular fun. He engages them in basketball and volleyball, or even hide-and-seek and sipa.

The virtue of patience
He advises adults who work with children to their fill of patience. In Bill's book, serving children in conflict with the law is "very much like holding grains of rice in your hands. "Hold it so tight and the grains will spill. Hold it so freely and you are likely to lose it all."

Ayag is justly proud of the boys of the Center who are doing well now. "Staying here is better for these boys than staying in the streets. Here, our setting is the family." The city government has allotted a modest, annual budget for the Center, in due recognition of the tremendous impact of its "diversion" program. In the first eight months of 2003 alone, the Center has received about 700 boys rescued from jails or the streets, or about 90 a month on average. Of the 700, at most 20 children face charges in court.

"We have an agreement with the police and jail custodians that if there are kids in jail, they must be brought to the Center. We ask the complainants in minor offenses if it is possible not to file cases anymore against the children," Ayag says. "It usually happens that kids are released on recognizance anyway, or their sentences are suspended because they are minors."

By the example of the Center and other nongovernment organizations, owners of malls in Cebu City have likewise signed up to an agreement with the city government that diversion is the first and correct response to children accused of shoplifting. Instead of jail, the Center is now the first stop for all these children. Ayag's fondest hope is that in time, they would retell the story of renewal of Bill and Roel.

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