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Community offers young offenders
a second chance

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
At a community center for children in conflict with the law, UNICEF finds a successful model that keeps children out of adult jails.

"ALMOST paradise."

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.

Building Balay 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.

Geronimo (Gerry) 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."

Saving 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.

FREELAVA's initial 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.

The volunteers 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.

The 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 it.

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 more difficult.

"Ang tanong 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.]

FREELAVA reviewed 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 parents are."

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."

A diversion program
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.

Behavioral change 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.

"Sometimes, 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]."

Belief 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 says.

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]."

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