By Sophie Newsome, edited by Jim Luce.
Olongapo, Philippines. The Jeepney’s engine is roaring up the streets that tie up the hills of Olongapo. I am commuting to the PREDA Boys’ Home – a Social and Human Development Center. PREDA is a Non-Government Organization (NGO) that has been active in the Philippines for 38 years.
The Boys’ Home, also known as Bukang Liwayway (BL) meaning “dawn” in Tagalog, is a rehabilitation center for boys currently ranging from 12 to 19 years old. There is an average of 48 boys per year at BL. These boys have been rescued from jails, the streets, drug use, or harmful family dynamics. Most of the boys were imprisoned and accused of committing crimes ranging from theft to murder or rape. With the help of PREDA paralegal officers, 70% of the boys’ cases get dropped. Because children are easy targets they are often framed to appease victims.
Fr. Shay Cullen, is an Irish priest who co-found PREDA. His journey to help the people of the Philippines started in 1969 when he came to the Philippines as a missionary. On February 22, 1974 PREDA opened its doors to street children, children from jails, and children with family problems. PREDA eventually expanded to help fight against the sex trafficking, physical abuse, and sexual abuse of children in the Philippines. There are currently 88 Filipino professionals who help run PREDA along with volunteers from around the world.
I arrive at the large and beautiful Boy’s home in Nabagayan, Castillejos. The building feels inviting and free with large windows to let in the fresh air-- sweetened by grass and rain. The building is on an organic farm with a small stream, fields, and hills surrounding it. The boys learn to work on the farm and fish in surrounding waters.
“There are no guards or gates at BL. If the boys want to leave, they can. We build trust with the boys, and most of them stay. PREDA has a 74% retention rate.” Fr. Shay had told me. I later experience that BL is the opposite of the imprisonment that most of the boys have faced. Here social workers and staff are present 24 hours of the day. The boys are given genuine care, respect, and an education. They also get all of their basic needs including meals, clean water, and clothing.
I tour the workshop where Marius Honschied, one of the German volunteers, is supervising boys fix a trike. “I try to have them work out what needs to be done on their own in order to fix and build things. If I just showed them, I could have things done in half the time, but that isn’t the point. I want them to have to think.” Marius tells me. Marius has done many projects with the boys including welding soccer goals. He and other volunteers help teach the boys of BL life skills.
Today I’m joining Aimiee’s math class. These are informal education classes, but teach the boys a lot none-the-less. Some of the boys also go to school if they are responsible enough to leave PREDA.
In Math, I am impressed with the intelligence and manners of these so-called criminals. I can also see that the boys crave Aimiee’s praise. The positive reinforcement and attention she gives them is important because most of them have faced neglect. In some cases their mother gave up custody of them to another family member. A lot of the boys have also been abused by family members physically, sexually, or economically.
An unhealthy family life leads to the boys leaving home and living on the streets. They then replace their natural need for love and support by joining gangs. Almost every boy at BL has tattoos to symbolize the gang they are in. Gangs have brutal initiation processes and encourage rape, stealing, drugs, and physical harm to others. “They have to be part of a gang to survive in the streets, and in jail they have to do the same.” Leon explains to me. At PREDA the boys learn to make healthy relationships. The staff shows the boys that gangs aren’t the only form of acceptance they can find.
Being in jail won’t help minors learn from their mistakes or become better people. In jail people are kept like caged animals being taken to slaughter. Gang warfare and crime is not stopped—it is just contained within walls. There are also times when minors are kept in the same cell as adult inmates, which can put minors at risk of sexual and physical abuse. “If they have no birth certificate to indicate their age they are sometimes kept with adult inmates until proven to be a minor,” a social worker in Caloocan City admits.
In 2006 the Juvenile Justice Bill (RA 9344) was introduced because of international and local NGO’s such as PREDA lobbying to get it passed. It became illegal for minors to be put in a cell with adult prisoners. A child in conflict with the law gained the rights of a child until he or she is proven 18 or older. Children above 15 and below 18 are exempt from criminal liability but are subjected to an intervention program unless he or she has acted with discernment. A child 15 years or younger is also exempt from criminal liability and should be released to a parental guardian. If their parents refuse to take them, or it is unsafe for them to go home, they should be released to a religious program or NGO.
Unfortunately, this law is not always implemented. Also, the lower house recently passed an amendment to his law to change the age of criminal liability to 12 years old. PREDA and many other agencies are lobbying the senate against passing a similar amendment.
It’s a new day at BL. Today I’m helping Jun Sakamoto, a Japanese volunteer, and Leon Kuechler, a German volunteer, teach the English alphabet. Leon is working with Dwien. “He couldn’t read or write at all when he arrived at PREDA,” Leon tells me. This is the case for many of the boys.
Towards the end of the class Leon works with Dwien on writing and reading in Tagalog. I can see Dwien is improving dramatically. “How long has he been reading?” I ask Leon. “This is the second time.” “Wow, magaling!”
Dwien’s cheeks are swollen with a grin, and he wants to keep reading despite class being over. I knew a switch had flipped inside of him right at that very moment. Being able to witness it was like the rare, off-chance in life that you actually see a flower open it’s petals to the sunlight.
It’s 5am and the start of a new week. I’m in the van with volunteers, boys from BL, and a social worker, Shiela Marie Daet. We are on our way to Manila for a hearing for Karl. He is being accused of murder.
On our way to Karl’s hearing, we walk past the Marikina City Department of Social-work Welfare and Development (DSWD), which is juvenile retention center but has the look and feel of a jail none-the-less. “Take me to PREDA,” a boy calls out to us with his face pressed up against the rusty metal mesh of the window. We hurriedly enter the court for Karl’s hearing.
“We come all this way, and the hearing can just be rescheduled. It is unfair to the boys because this trip puts a lot of stress them,” Shiela says. She then tells me that this is only Karl’s second hearing in the last two years. From reading Karl’s files, I learn that that he is part of a gang called True Brown Style. The file states that his father died, which forced his mother to leave him in custody of her cousin and move to Dubai for work. He hasn’t seen his mother since the day she left. We finally get seen by the judge but are just rescheduled.
“How are the boys selected to come to PREDA?” I ask Shiela. “The boys get referred to us by judges and social workers. Also when we find minors in jails we work on getting them transferred.” We are on our way back to the van and are walking past the DSWD again. Shiela asks for permission to get access.
Once we are inside the smallest boy, who is about six, approaches me right away. He is shy but wants to hold my hand. I gladly accept the offer. I noticed that he is wearing blue boxer shorts with a pink Disney shirt. If I closed my eyes I would have thought I was holding a hand callous with age. This little boy’s hands must be riddled with scabies.
Looking around the inside of the DSWD it is packed with about 40 boys, and is dingy and hot. Five of the seven beds are just metal frames. It stinks of a pungent body odor and onion smell. On the floor I notice a big bowl of rice. Looking up I notice an old man sitting at the back of the room. Shadows seem to be building nests in the hollows of his face, and his lips are curled over his bare gums. I am happy in a way to see that he can barely lift his sulking limbs. I don’t want him to be a danger to the young boys.
“There aren’t supposed to be street children in here. They are in here with the kids who have committed crimes.” Aimiee also tells me that the children who are in detention centers like this can stay in them for years. Even if they become adults they won’t get moved, which isn’t safe for the younger children. Leon later tells, “Liam [a boy from BL] was telling the boys in the Marakina DSWD that at PREDA the food is delicious, and that he is always full. This is the opposite of the Marakina DSWD. I also heard that there have been food related casualties there.”
We arrive at Karl’s uncle’s house for his monthly home visit, but no one is home. The neighborhood women gather and talk to Shiela. They tell her that Karl was abused by his uncle and that that he keeps the money sent from Karl’s mother for himself. Shiela asks if they know how to get in contact with his mother. No one knows.
The boys at BL have been through a lot in their lives. They have faced loss of family and innocence, and have been robbed of their childhoods. Because of the hardships that they have faced, a therapy unique to PREDA is used called Primal Therapy. Primal Therapy, created by Dr. Arthur Javon, is facilitated in a padded room where the boys can release their pain, anger, and sadness by screaming and crying as much as they want. After this emotional release, they are then given an opportunity to tell the monitors their life stories.
Aimiee, Shiela, and I are on another trip to Manila with one boy from BL. Andre has a hearing today because he is being charged with gang rape. Due to the sensitivity of the case and the victim’s minority, her attorney requests the public be removed during her testimony. Because of this Andre’s case is pushed to last. Once it is finally Andre’s turn there is no time left and the hearing is postponed. The 16 year old victim now has to wait another three months to tell her story.
On the way out of court Aimiee tells me a story of another boy at BL. “He doesn’t know the difference between rape and sex. He thinks that having sex, in general, is rape. Once consensual sex is reported that is when it becomes rape in his eyes.”
The next place we visit is Mandaluyong Jail. Here we see four boys between 15 and 18 years old being kept in a one room cell. The floor is cement and there are mats for beds. There is also one small shower/bathroom stall in the room.
I learn that these boys won’t leave the cell until they are either transferred or ordered release. One of the boys has been in there for four months for stealing hair wax. He has requested to see a social worker but has been denied. Shiela explains to us that they should legally be allowed to talk to a social worker whenever they want. Shiela talks to them about possibly going to PREDA and will likely file a court order to get them out. For many of these boys PREDA is the green grass on the other side of the cell door.
Later in Caloocan City we meet with a social worker. “What are your views on amending the law to 12 years old?” Aimiee asks a social worker. “At 12 years old they don’t know the difference between right and wrong.” “So you don’t think that the law should be amended to 12?” Aimiee asks again. “No.”
We arrive at Andre’s house for a home visit. He lives in a slum and the inside of his house looks like an unfurnished basement. It is damp, dark, and cockroaches run sneakily across counter tops.
Andre’s mother seats us and gives us a bottle of Mountain Dew with glasses, which is a big gesture from this family of 12.
Shiela converses with Andre’s mother and translates for Aimiee and I. “Can you ask his mother what she thinks about Andre’s crime?” Shiela translates in Tagalog and then tells us how she is in disbelief. “You know how it is hard for a mother to except...” she trails off quietly. His mother also tells us that she feels at peace knowing that Andre is at PREDA. “She says she can now sleep at night and has seen improvements in Andre since being at PREDA. On home visits he has fixed the stove and two electric fans.”
Working with PREDA has left me with many unanswered questions but some definite answers: Children are the mortar that hold together the building blocks of our future. Because of this they need to receive guidance and love. No minor, for any reason, should be imprisoned.