Issue of December 31, 2017
Mt. Province

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Second chances

His story is something he tells only a few people. But seeing kids separated from their family because of a “mistake” they have committed either by force or circumstance made him narrate his own story, not to justify his belief about how children in conflict with the law (CICL) should be “punished,” but for the public to understand the how’s and the why’s of children finding themselves tangled with the law.

Joseph, who spoke in a conference with social welfare officers CICL said he is not in favor of lowering the age of criminal responsibility. He went on to narrate that when he was young, he got involved in misfits enough to make land in jail and see the harsh realities of imprisonment.

“At age 12, I was already a juvenile delinquent. Those pushing for lowering the age of criminal responsibility should know and understand the implications,” Joseph said recalling that at the time of his detention, a fellow CICL committed suicide because of depression.

At the time, there were no interventions yet for CICL and they were detained along with adult suspects. Joseph cut short his story only to tell that present moves to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, may not be a wise move in efforts to curb involvement of minors in crimes, including heinous ones at that.

It was during our interview when Joseph opened up about he became involved in crimes and how he got past it, and is now trying to be role model to his two children.

“Insardeng ko diay istoryak ta makasangitak,” he said but agreed to detail what he went through, if only to bring his message across – that a minor – a child who finds himself entangled with the law deserves guidance, understanding and reformation.

Joseph describes his family as “poor” having been raised with his only brother only by his mother – a PWD who makes a livelihood by selling sweepstakes. His neighborhood wasn’t exactly an ideal community. “I was exposed to nasty characters in our former house in Brookside,” he said.

At a young age, he understood that life was hard and he had to do what he could to help his mother get by. “I was pushed by the need to survive,” he said.

Having befriended some neighbors involved in burglary, Joseph soon found himself the youngest member of an akyat-bahay and bukas-kotse gang.

For three years, his task was to unlock bolts, windows, doors so he and other members can get in and get the things they needed inside. He was nine years old at the time. The other members of the group were aged 14, 18, and 20.

One night, as he was inside a house surveying what his could take, police arrested him, while his companions were able to run. He said a neighbor apparently saw what was happening and alerted the police. Caught red-handed, he was detained in a cell along with adult suspects.

But before being brought a cell, Joseph said the moment he was arrested, he thought he never see the light of day again.

“Nagistayan dak ibelleng dagidiay pulis,” Joseph said recalling that the arresting officers wanted him to reveal who his companions were.

He said the most heartbreaking moment was when his mother blamed herself for what happened to her son. It was at this point when he cried as he recalled the agony his mother went through to bail him out. He said he told his mother that she had nothing to do with what he did, and that his only intention was to help.

Joseph, being only 12 years old then, was released. After the incident, his family transferred to their present home in San Carlos Heights.

Joseph said he learned his lesson the hard way – that there is no excuse when you commit a crime, but there is always room for reform.

Now married and with two sons, he said he tries his best to be a good role model to his children. He said life is still hard but he always reminds his children that material things are not the only measure of wealth. “I teach them not to be envious and live by with what we have.”

Joseph’s story is what moves advocates of juvenile justice to think twice before pushing for the law’s amendment.

As “father” to CICL housed at the Department of Social Welfare and Development Regional Rehabilitation Center for the Youth in Sablan, Benguet, Johnny Bumakil said trying the CICL like adults has more negative implications.

“They are also victims of circumstances. Most of them come from dysfunctional families, are victims of abuse, abandoned by their parents. Why allow children to suffer the failure of parents?” Bumakil said.

He said even if the law is amended, there are not enough centers to cater to CICL, leaving the government with the possibility of committing them in jails. “The only recourse is to commit them in jail. What happens is the possibility of recommitting the crime. Bringing them to justice should be towards rehabilitation,” Bumakil said noting that all CICL brought to the RRCY have been assessed to have passed the requirements to reintegrate back to the community, but it is when they return to the community where they become discriminated, instead of the community helping in the rehabilitation process.

CICL who commit heinous crimes are referred to closest relatives who do not reside at the area where the incident was committed in order to avoid possible backlash from the victim or relatives of the victim, hence the need for family support.

“The community plays a crucial role. But in many instances the CICL are unwelcome in the community, or even by their family.” Bumakil said more than the interventions provided by the DSWD and other guidance counselors, the family and the community’s contribution are vital in the reformation process.

Bumakil also clarified notion that CICL caught committing a crime are immediately released based on the DSWD’s recommendation. He said the DSWD does not condone crime and is one with a victim’s quest for justice. However, crimes committed by a minor should be approached in a different manner.

He said the gravity of crime committed by a CICL are classified and based on their assessment, they recommend if their case will be suspended or they will have to undergo diversion procedures.

The RRCY is currently handling 18 suspended cases and two diversion cases.

While at the RRCY, they undergo counseling, Bible study, character building, modular instruction, or are referred to partner institutions of the DSWD for skills training, alternative learning, or are made to study in regular schools.

DSWD-CAR OIC Project Evaluation Officer Dennis Fernandez said the agency is strongly advocating for restorative justice system – one where the youth, who also happens to be victims of circumstances are allowed to mend their ways as they become adults.

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