Children Behind Bars

There has been progress in saving and releasing hundreds of small children and youth from stench-filled cells across the Philippines.The PREDA* Children's Home in Olongapo is almost full, but ready to receive more children. It's building a new home for some of those who are to be released. President Macapagal-Arroyo heard the cries of the children echoed by the charities helping them to survive. This happened after concerted lobbying by many concerned charities including the PREDA Foundation.  Prisons called ‘youth reception' or ‘rehabilitation centres' must be closed and the children returned to their parents; or those abandoned or homeless given true homes and care.

There may be an estimated 20,000 children waiting for freedom! The new Juvenile Justice and Welfare law says they must be released; the presidential executive order 633, made only this July, says it must be implemented without delay but bureaucracy is moribund and there are no ready homes for the many children behind bars. Many have no parents and authorities have been unable to, or unwilling to look for those that have no parents.

The President, no matter how well intentioned in ordering the release has to address the immediate and long term needs of these ‘Throwaway Children.' Where will they go? Back to the streets to be taken up by criminal gangs, trafficked into the sex industry or unfortunately as happens, become domestic slaves or be sold to paedophiles?

There will never be enough homes and vocational training centres until there is a massive change in government policy. They must spend it on more professional social workers, case officers and new homes for street children and those teenagers in conflict with the law. Life behind bars for even one day is traumatic; Jesse had been there for almost two months.

A visit to a child detention centre in Metro Manila uncovered the plight of Jesse, a 9-year-old boy from an impoverished family;  charity workers found him and dozens more huddled on the cold, dirty concrete floor, all between 7-14 years old. They are innocent of any crime other than being poor and homeless. The girls section is totally cut off from all contact with the outside world. What is happening to them, nobody knows.

Jesse and the boys' possessions are few: a pair of dirty shorts, a T-shirt, some had slippers, others had none. They are behind bars, never free from disease, toothache, hunger, fear, anger and loneliness. They have no birthday parties, education, games, recreation, play time, no nutritious food, no clothes, toothbrushes or any of the simple needs that make us feel like human beings. Mosquitoes make deadly nocturnal feasts on blood and leave behind the malaria and dengue parasites. At one stage nine youths died in a single period of 15 days. There was no investigation but a doctor was called in to stop the dying and incredibly, with little more than dedication has prevented more from dying.

Urgent immediate help is needed for the eight to 12-year-olds. A few can be released to the PREDA* Boys Home. What is urgently needed in the jails and "reception" centres is nutritional food, clothes, medical assistance, recreation, and contact with parents. Action is needed today and everyday until they are well fed, cared for and helped to go free and start a life of dignity.

*PREDA - People's Recovery Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation, Inc.


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Fr Shay Cullen has been a missionary in the Philippines since 1969.