That is the promise
that Balay Pasilungan (House of Rescue) aspires to give children
in conflict with the law at its modest two-story facility
in the heart of Cebu City. A temporary shelter and "rehabilitation"
facility, it serves an average of 100 boys below 18 years
old at any given time.
Pasilungan became an urgent project for development workers
of the FREELAVA (Free Rehabilitation, Economic, Education
and Legal Assistance Volunteers Association), in the course
of their campaign for human rights in the late '80s.
The idea was born
on the throes of death -- that of a boy, 15, whom FREELAVA
assisted in the 1997. A week after his release from jail,
the boy was killed, victim of an apparent summary execution,
a case that remains unsolved to this day.
Jacalan, center administrator of Balay Pasilungan, recalls:
"FREELAVA started working in jails in 1983, to assist
victims of human rights violations. The lawyers told us that
more and more children were being arrested, and mixed with
adults in jail." A sense of guilt and serious worry seized
FREELAVA's volunteers, after the 15-year-old boy died. "We
help children get out of jail but send them back to the streets
again, where they could get hurt again, or even get killed."
and serving children
FREELAVA thus embarked on a three-pronged approach to serve
children in conflict with the law -- providing legal assistance
and periodic visits to jails by lawyers, organizing communities
to support crime prevention, and operating a rehabilitation
program through Balay Pasilungan. Lessons from previous projects
informed new projects, even as FREELAVA mounted vigorous advocacy
efforts to push the approach.
This entailed organizing
parents, city and barangay officials, nongovernment organizations
and the children themselves around "Child Justice Committee"
or CJC. A mechanism for the barangay council to administer
"restorative justice" for child offenders, the CJC
exists today in 12 of the 80 barangays of Cebu City.
target was to have CJCs in 16 barangays where its volunteers
had mounted education campaigns on human rights. But "we
decided to prioritize depressed barangays with a high incidence
of child abuse and drug dependence," Gerry says.
set out to field to monitor cases of physical abuse, delinquency,
child labor, prostitution, and drug use in barangays where
squatters abound. Their reports illustrated the urgency of
child development programs on the barangay level.
role of the community
"Madali sa parents, mahirap sa LGUs (local government
units)," Gerry compares. [It’s easy to deal with
the parents but not with LGUs.] Several local and barangay
elections passed until the project finally took off in some
barangays, with the support of child-friendly political leaders.
In Gerry's view,
village and local officials were at first reluctant to support
the project due to either a lack of interest in concerns of
children -- who do not constitute a voting bloc -- or what
they claim to be a lack of funds and resources to sustain
In the absence
of a law institutionalizing child development programs like
FREELAVA's initiatives, the vagaries of politics prevail.
Politicians who win or lose in elections drive the rise and
fall of such programs, making the work of child advocates
nila sa amin: Saan kukunin ang pondo para sa child development
programs? Kahit nga sa operations ng barangay kulang na ang
budget," Gerry says. [Their question was: Where will
we get the funds for child development programs. Even for
operations alone, the barangay does not have enough.]
the finer details of the barangay budget and spotted two possible
sources of money -- the contingency fund or the "Gender
and Development (GAD) Fund" that the barangay councils
receive from the national government. The latter is allotted
for gender-sensitive programs to curb violence against women,
a sector so intrinsically linked to children.
"If the barangay
councils wish to, they could actually find the funds to invest
on children," Gerry avers. "But barangay officials
do not see children as a voting constituency, although their
On behalf of their
children, parents organized by FREELAVA came in as "a
bargaining piece" with the barangay councils. "Kapag
hindi ninyo kami papansinin, saan kayo pupulutin sa susunod
na eleksyon [If you won't pay attention to us, how will you
fare in the next election]?" Gerry recalls how the parents
argued with village officials.
In a series, the
CJCs were organized under the barangay's Lupong Pamayapa (Peace
and Order Council). With the barangay chairperson as head,
the CJC members include the barangay secretary, the kagawad
or councilor assigned to Peace and Order, the barangay Gender
and Development officer, the chief tanod, and representatives
of the local police's Women and Children's Protection Desk,
Sangguniang Kabataan, and parents or community volunteers.
Yet even more significant,
former child offenders who have become exemplars of good citizenship
sit in the CJC as "Peer Educators."
Ramel Adlaon, program manager of Cebu's Community-Based Diversion/Mediation
Program for Children in Conflict with the Law, says the CJC
process starts with documentation of the nature and circumstances
of the alleged offense of the child. Barangay officials interview
the child in the presence of his or her parents, or in their
absence, a volunteer worker. The facts of the case known,
a counseling session is held with the child and parents.
As a rule, the
child must admit to the facts of the case before an offense
could be established. This done, the CJC considers two modes
of action to take. First, if the child's parents are around,
the child is asked to render community service, such as cleaning
the city's clogged drains for a certain number of hours. Second,
if the child's parents could not be located, the child is
sent to Balay Pasilungan for "rehabilitation" of
at most six months.
Because its resources
are limited, Balay Pasilungan applies certain criteria to
discern a child's eligibility for rehabilitation. For instance,
it assigns priority to a child who is a first offense, has
committed a minor offense (covered by the barangay justice
system and punishable with at most six months' detention or
a fine or P5,000), and the complainant has agreed to withdraw
the case and send the child to "diversion" or "rehabilitation"
programs. Most important of all, the child must have admitted
to committing the offense.
Apart from children
referred by the CJCs, Balay Pasilungan also admits children
released on recognizance by Cebu judges handling juvenile
cases. Too, FREELAVA volunteers pay regular visits to the
city's jails, in active search of child offenders being mixed
with adult offenders.
is rehabilitation's goal but Ramel stresses that certain social
factors such as the child's relationship with his parents,
and their family's financial situation could either facilitate
or impede change. After six months, the child moves back to
his family for a happy "reintegration." Yet all
too often, poverty stands in the way.
when the child returns home, the family is not ready to take
him back," Ramel says. "We shoulder the education
of the child pero minsan, wala namang makain sa pamilya [but
sometimes, his family cannot feed him]," Ramel avers.
"Para bang binigyan mo na ng bigas, bigyan mo na rin
ng ulam [It's like you must give them not just rice but also
a dish to complete the meal]."
in the power of reform
Over the last six years, Balay Pasilungan has achieved mostly
positive results in its efforts to offer a second chance to
children in conflict with the law. Gerry and Ramel recall
just a handful of cases of recidivists or repeat offenders,
out of hundreds of children that had lived in "paradise"
at Balay Pasilungan.
"We had one
case of a child aged 17 who did not want to listen at all
to any counseling or therapy session. Once he tried to stab
another child with a pair of scissors," Gerry narrates.
The child has been accused of pushing shabu, and bears on
his leg the scar of a bullet wound that a policeman had inflicted,
in the course of his arrest. He had been in jail for months
before he was transferred to Balay Pasilungan.
From the many cases
of child offenders he has studied, Gerry says recidivism usually
results from a mix of situations. Too often, drug use or dependence
by the child has complicated his behavior. In this particular
child's case, "he said at the counseling sessions that
he knows he has largely anger and contempt for adults,"
Gerry adds. "His family had abandoned him, his parents
had given up on him." As well, there is the "stigmatization"
that hounds children who had seen time in jail. "Pagbalik
nila sa eskwela, ang sinasabi salbahe daw ang mga batang galing
sa kulungan [On their return to school, their classmates tell
them children from jail are bad eggs]."
To counter the
stigma that society has latched on to child offenders, FREELAVA
has organized advocacy campaigns even in Cebu City's public
schools. "Our boys took part in the campaign. We also
asked them to precisely do well in their studies, to participate
in school activities, to sing and dance, do art," Gerry
The children are
doing so well, in fact, they are now excelling in their academics
but also drawing a lot of female admirers who visit Balay
Pasilungan on occasion. "Hindi na stigmatization ang
problema kundi mga girlfriends [Stigmatization is no longer
a problem as much as girlfriends]."
With elder brothers
like Gerry and Ramel, and the FREELAVA volunteers giving them
tutorials to deal with school assignments, the boys of Balay
Pasilungan could manage their studies well. Yet beyond returning
to school, they now look forward to living a career many years
from now. By some twist of fate, about 90 per cent of the
36 boys housed at the center share a common ambition -- to
be a policeman. The reason, the boys say, is "gusto nilang
tumulong sa ibang bata [They want to help other children]."
In Gerry's view,
the choice apparently reflects also the journey of change
that the boys want to take. "A number of them had experienced
abuse during their arrest and detention and seen the bad side
of the police. When they grow up, perhaps they want to make
children see the good side of the police."
The other boys
say their life's goal to be a "peer educator" or
volunteer worker like Gerry and Ramel.
Ruben, a former
Balay Pasilungan resident who is now a second year criminology
student, offers an eloquent explanation: "Dito ko ginawa
ang desisyon na ayaw ko nang bumalik sa dati kong buhay [This
was where I decided that I don't ever want to return to my
past life, that I want to move on]."