They’re considered the scourge of city streets, these scraggly kids who sprint between cars in busy traffic—begging, demanding change for wiping windshields despite protests from motorists, and deftly swiping valuables at the slightest opportunity. The less aggressive sit in drugged torpor on street corners, sniffing a plastic bag of solvent clasped in one hand.
Such scenes confirm what many have observed: that city streets are now the most effective classrooms for crime. Left to fend for themselves, street children learn soon enough that survival depends on their lack of scruples and their willingness to prey on the weak and the distracted.
Which makes House Bill No. 1440 filed by two Mindanao representatives an urgent measure deserving of public support.
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and his brother, Abante Mindanao Rep. Maximo Rodriguez, are pushing for the creation of crisis centers for street children in Metro Manila and in all other big cities nationwide.
While “national and local government agencies, along with nongovernment organizations, work hand in hand to uplift the situation of Filipino street children, there are numerous needs that have yet to be met,” the lawmakers said in their explanatory note.
Filed two years ago, the bill provides for a comprehensive program that will provide various forms of assistance to street children, including temporary shelter, emergency medical aid, regular feeding and basic education “to equip them with livelihood, technical and social skills … to uplift their conditions,” according to the bill’s authors.
The proposed crisis centers, to be managed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development in close consultation with local government units, are a timely intervention, given the rising number of crimes attributed to minors who exploit the well-intentioned Republic Act No. 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.
According to RA 9344, children below 18 at the time of the commission of the crime are exempt from criminal liability although they are subject to intervention programs.
Such an exemption has made street children the favored factotum of criminal elements, who know that even the police have no recourse but to release the young offenders, as demanded by RA 9344. Once released, the these children go back to their criminal ways, doubtless egged on by wily adult felons.
But street children are themselves victimized by the same criminal elements who lure them into the drug habit, from inhalants such as solvents and rugby, to cough syrup, to shabu. Their senses dulled by drugs, they become more willing to carry out nefarious deeds.
Life in the streets is fraught with other hazards for these youth who numbered 45,000 in 2000, according to the Council for the Welfare of Children. From sickness arising from malnutrition, to physical injuries from motor accidents, street fights, harassment from extortionists and police, sexual exploitation by pedophiles and pimps, child prostitution and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, as well as summary execution, these children are heir to the worst aspects of street life.
The proposed law hopes to address these ills by providing shelters and the necessary intervention for these homeless children, in the firm belief that they can, and should, be saved.
It’s one bill that deserves strong support and an urgent push in Congress given that it has a long way to go before it becomes fully operational. Funding for the centers would have to be found—not an easy task especially because 2016 is an election year.
Staffing is just as crucial, as handling juveniles used to defying authority will require extensive and proper training, and the right mindset to stick to the job despite the tall odds.
Just as important is proper coordination with other government agencies with a similar mandate to make sure that turf wars are avoided.
Protecting street children may not sound urgent or even attractive to a lot of motorists and other sectors who have had many an unpleasant, or indeed frightening, encounter with them. But it is precisely because they tread the thin line on the edge of the law and may fall irretrievably on the wrong side that they need the helping hand, the firm grasp to pull them up the slippery slope, lest they tumble—and take society down with them.
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