Where adults have failed
Much has been said of whether younger children should be held liable for crimes. Little has been explored in terms of how adults have failed them.
It starts, of course, in the family. It starts with a couple’s disregard for the long-term responsibilities of parenthood. It starts with poor decision-making and a lack of discernment. It starts, even, with a lack of reproductive health education.
It’s absolutely painful to think of a child as a result of their parents’ negligence, but there it is: a toddler begging for coins before he can even form complete sentences; a schoolchild with a record of misconduct; a preteen sniffing glue in broad daylight.
Without proper guidance from their parents or guardians, such children are vulnerable to be swept into unlawful circles, whether through the influence of peers or, as our lawmakers like to tout, through exploitation by crime syndicates.
When kids come in contact with the justice system due to being suspected or accused of a crime, they are labeled “children in conflict with the law” (CICL). Under the current juvenile welfare law, CICL are placed in government-run or government-recognized youth rehabilitation centers. This leads us to another disheartening demonstration of how our children are failed by the adults who are supposed to care for them.
On paper, rehabilitation centers and youth homes sound ideal. We imagine child-friendly facilities with trained professionals who guide kids toward their healthy reintegration into society. However, reality makes for a less sunny picture.
Years ago, I had a chance to visit a government shelter to interview CICL and homeless children. The place was little more than a basic, single-story building with a rough soil front yard surrounded by a rudimentary wood fence. The kids sat with us on wooden benches in the yard and told us that some of them had escaped once or twice, only to be “caught” again. They felt stifled at the center. They would rather live in the streets.
It was apparent that the center lacked not only the material infrastructure to be conducive for youth rehabilitation, but also the mental and emotional support suited for children who have spent their lives out in the open. It was easy to see why the kids would want to run away.
Certainly, not all youth homes have these inadequacies. But the shelter I visited was clearly far from the only one that fell short. On Tuesday, Rep. Manuel Zubiri pointed out that facilities for children, particularly in rural areas, usually end up being overcrowded or squalid. Even Rep. Salvador Leachon, who is pushing for the bill to lower the age of criminal liability, had to agree that, across the country, there is a lack of proper facilities for the rehabilitation of minors.
This is the reality that our vulnerable children operate in—a reality that adults have forced them into. While it’s difficult to deny that kids seem to be bolder these days in committing crimes, it’s also unreasonable to assume that they willfully and rationally chose that path for themselves.
There is plenty of scientific evidence showing that a person reaches psychosocial maturity only by age 16 or even older. Even when those 9-year-old drifters seem street-smart and clever, we cannot reasonably assume that their thinking is grounded on psychological, emotional and social maturity. In many cases, crimes committed by children seem to be survival mechanisms that children resort to because they cannot rely on the very adults who are supposed to support them.
If there are stricter laws to be made to protect these children, it should put pressure on the adults around them. It should be a concrete push for responsible parenthood and stronger support for youth welfare services.
Sadly, the controversial bill falls short in addressing these. With regard to adult accountability, it proposes only that parents be held liable for civil damages caused by their children. For parents of children who are repeat offenders or have committed serious crimes, the bill proposes only parenting seminars and counseling, or imprisonment of up to six months. A mere slap on the wrist that fails to seriously tackle negligent family environments. As for improving the country’s youth centers? There is hardly any attention to that.
Instead, our lawmakers are determined to place the burden on children who do not know better. Another harrowing display of the failure of adults.
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