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Children cry for a second chance
Johnny L. Bumakil

SECOND CHANCE -- The jail is no place for a child. At the Regional Rehabilitation Center for the Youth in Sablan, Benguet, children in conflict with the law are provided with unique interventions with the goal of reintegrating them to the community and be productive individuals. -- Johnny L. Bumakil
The best interest of a child refers to the totality of the circumstances and conditions, which are most congenial to the survival, protection, and feelings of security of a child and most encouraging to the child’s physical, psychological, and emotional development. It also means the least detrimental available alternative for safeguarding the growth and development of the child, according to Sec. 4 (b) of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, as amended.

The law, signed by then President and now Pampanga 2nd District Rep. Gloria M. Arroyo is a landmark child protection law that provides appropriate proceedings in handling cases of children who are alleged as, accused of, and adjudged as having committed an offense under Philippine laws.

This act also mandates that “a child above 15 years old but below 18 years of age shall be exempted from criminal liability and be subjected to an intervention program, unless he/she has acted with discernment, in which case, such child shall be subjected to appropriate proceedings.” To this effect, a child whose sentence has been suspended shall be required to undergo rehabilitation program under the guidance of trained staff where he or she is cared for in a therapeutic environment with an end view of reintegrating him in the community as a productive individual.

Up to this day, the implementation of the law faces various challenges. Critics oppose its provisions as, according to them, it allows children to  commit crimes knowing they can get away from it and worse, syndicates take advantage of the children in their criminal acts. Some lawmakers are also relentless in filing a bill seeking to revert the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 years old to nine years old.

As a social worker of the Regional Rehabilitation Center for the Youth (RRCY) in Sablan, Benguet, I’ve handled tough dynamics of teenagers, but behind toughness are daunting stories of dysfunctional families, abuse and neglect, financial constraints, low education, and peer pressure.

As part of rehabilitation program, the youth are provided with unique interventions with an end-view of reintegrating them with their families and communities as productive individuals. Spiritual enrichments, therapeutic sessions, life skills and character building, educational services, seminar-workshops for children and their parents, and technical-vocational skills are among the basic services designed for each youth.

Through the rehabilitation program, the youth are able to understand and appreciate their potentials, transform their hearts, and build positive outlook in life. Most importantly, they learned to care for others in their own little ways.

There are differing views on whether or not lowering the MACR will serve the best interest of the child. I have five reasons why the age of criminal liability should not be lowered and instead fully implement the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act. I give these reasons on my personal capacity as a social worker:

1. Children are not little adults. Children’s brains are not fully developed until their early 20s, according to a neuroscientific research.

2. It will not result in lowering the crime rate. A report says that 1.72 percent of reported crimes are committed by children. Most are petty crimes like theft, which is construed as a desperate survival measure.

3. It will encourage syndicates to use younger children. Lowering the MACR will not stop syndicates from using children younger than nine.

4. RA 9344 does not need to be amended. It needs to be implemented. It focuses on prevention and intervention programs like counseling. In serious offenses, youth may go to a care facility or a Bahay Pag-asa center and undergo rehabilitation. However, the law is not often implemented because of weak government commitments.

5. A jail is no place for a child. Due to lack of youth care facilities, children will most likely end up in jails where they may be subjected to violence and abuse.

The issues on children-in-conflict with the law (CICL) are stark manifestations of being victims of circumstances they are born into so the government should invest more of its resources to the family as basic unit of social institutions. As duty bearers, we are accountable to the full growth and development of our children. Give them the second chance and it will surely resonate towards a brighter future.

Nilo and RA 9344

Here is the case of Nilo (not his real name), who was one of the CICLs under the care of RRYC:

Because his parents quarreled frequently at home, Nilo left his family to earn a living as a  pocket miner in Benguet. At work, he used to mingle with out-of-school youths like him and later learned to take illegal drugs, drink liquor, and smoke. Nilo had frequent quarrels with his father especially when under the influence of liquor.

At the age of 16, Nilo was charged of a crime against persons and was detained in jail. After five months, he was transferred to the RRCY pursuant to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act. Few days after his admission, he admitted the commission of the offense, and this resulted in the re-arraignment of his case and suspension of sentence.

He continued his program at the RRCY and was provided with life skills and character building, therapeutic sessions, spiritual enrichments, ALS lessons, and training on shielded metal arc welding at the Consuelo Life Skills Center for Children. Nilo’s parents also underwent family therapy and seminars leaning towards improving familial relationship.

After 15 months of undergoing the program, Nilo was evaluated with positive behaviors and skills and was recommended to be mainstreamed into the society. He was allowed to go on independent living at Consuelo Life Skills Center for Children with the help of his family and the local government unit. As part of independent living, he worked as a construction worker at the Child and Family Services Inc. and later applied as an attendant in a gasoline station. For having a remarkable work attitude, Nilo passed his on-the-job training and was eventually hired in the gasoline station. The criminal aspect of his case has been terminated by the court considering the positive changes in him.

Nilo is thankful for the second chance given him to make his life meaningful and fulfilling. He is thankful for the knowledge and skills to weather life’s trials. Nilo is also grateful that that his rehabilitation program was extended to his family as his parents learned to admit their lapses and realized the need to be supportive of each other. At present, Nilo is focused on his work and is hopeful to be of help to other youth like him.
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