By Fr. Shay Cullen
Andres is just one 10-year old child and he has lived on the streets of Metro Manila most of his life like thousands of other street children. They are abandoned, work as scavengers, market boys or girls and are vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse by adults. They are uneducated and without family or social welfare, care and protection. They are completely vulnerable to the influence of those who can give them food or money.
Andres was a survivor. He worked as a scavenger collecting plastic bottles and other junks to sell in order to buy enough food for the day but it was never enough. He only knew he had to get food and anything he did to survive was the right thing for him to do. He didn’t get enough scraps one day and he saw a cell phone on a vendor’s tray at the market and he took it. He sold it and bought food. Andres like most children didn’t know if it was right or wrong. The moral or legal issue was not a reality for him. He was just hungry. He was arrested by the barangay tanod and charged with theft. Was he a criminal?
There is a majority of Filipinos who say, “No he is not.” The Philippine Congress on two previous occasions said he is not. There are now voices of the police and local district officials who blame the children as young as nine years of age as notorious criminals and they say the children should be treated as criminals. They are persuading congressional representatives to amend the law and to lower the minimum age of criminal liability of the Filipino children from 15 years of age to nine years of age. They think that the child is allowed to go without any intervention to help them know right from wrong. The law directs that there be help given and intervention for children in conflict with the law. This lowering of the age of criminal liability is detrimental to children it should not be changed.
The child shall be subjected to a community-based intervention program supervised by the local social welfare and development officer, unless the best interest of the child requires the referral of the child to a youth care facility or ‘Bahay Pag-asa’ managed by LGUs or licensed and/or accredited NGOs monitored by the DSWD.
The law and millions of Filipinos and around the world say, “No, Andres and thousands like him are not criminals and must be helped.” They and wise legislators believe that the survival of life is the greatest human need and hunger must be satisfied. Besides the Philippine law RA 9344 is benign, compassionate and enlightened and it takes into consideration that a child, especially under the age of 15, that has little schooling, lives on the streets and is always hungry cannot be held liable for adult acts that are considered adult crime.
The fact that police are complaining that criminal gangs are taking advantage of children because they cannot be held liable for crimes claim that the children work as drug couriers and should be treated as criminals and the law be changed so nine year olds can be arrested. The supporters of such a position should present solid research showing substantial figures of children being used in this way. But even if it were so then the child would not understand that he or she was doing something wrong. The power and influence of an adult in ascendency over the child is very strong. The child cannot act with free will and full knowledge and without that there is no crime. They have been coerced.
The adult drug traffickers are the criminals, not the small children. The children are innocent victims of abuse by the adults. The adult suspects ought to be arrested and charged with child abuse. The testimony of the child will be sufficient to convict the adult criminal using the child. The child can be taken into care and protection and the law provides for that intervention. In a court ruling applying the RA 9344 the judge had the following to say.
“R.A. No. 10630 addresses the concerns and criticisms of the law by amending certain provisions of R.A. No. 9344. One amendment introduced by R.A. No. 10630 is the imposition of the maximum period prescribed by law for the crime committed on any person, who in the commission of a crime, makes use, takes advantage of, or profits from the use of children, including any person who abuses his/her authority over the child or who, with abuse of confidence, takes advantage of the vulnerabilities of the child and shall induce, threaten or instigate the commission of the crime.”
That is putting the burden on law enforcers to apprehend and charge the adults who use children and instigate and teach them to participate in illegal actions. The tabloid media has constantly played up the plight of the street children who have to survive alone or in groups. They present them as animal-like criminals and sometimes demonize the children.
But the desperate hungry and abandoned children are trying to meet their human needs to survive in a cruel neglectful society around them. They have been neglected, abused oppressed and jailed. Some of the Bahay Pag-asa youth centers are in fact jails in most respects and the children are in fact being punished. They provide little or no education or assistance to give the children no chance at a better life. Soon the cells will fill-up with nine year olds and suffer physical and sexual abuse in the jails if the law is changed.
What an added disgrace to the Philippines to criminalize the innocent children. Remembering the words of Jesus of Nazareth when asked who was the most important in the world. He placed a child before the crowd and said “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child. Whoever welcomes one such child as this welcomes me.” (Matt.18; 3 -5) These are somber thoughts for those who would treat the child as a criminal at nine years old. Let your opposition be known by the chairperson of the Congressional Committee on Justice Rep. Reynaldo Umali through his Twitter account https://twitter.com/reyumali
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