By Columban Fr. Shay Cullen
Rosi, in the photograph, was a six-year old child detained in the police detention cell of Police Station B on Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo City, the Philippines, some years ago. More like her will be jailed if the minimum age of criminal liability will be lowered to nine or 12 years old.
One evening during Holy Week, I was downtown in Olongapo City. It was filled with sex tourists. Many street children were as usual running about begging money from the foreign sex tourists. The children were vulnerable as pedophiles would prowl the streets and try and lure them away and abuse them.
The city had one source of employment and that was entertainment for sex tourists. Thousands of young girls, many underage, were victims of human trafficking and bound to the sex bars by debt bondage. Hundreds of sex bars lined the streets, and they operated with a mayor’s permit. HIV-AIDS was spreading.
The Preda Foundation established a home for these street children to protect and care for them with professional social workers. Today there are forty children in care in the Preda Home for Girls recovering from sexual abuse. In the Home for Boys, another 30 children are protected and safe.
That evening, I went to visit Police Station B on Magsaysay Drive, Olongapo City because many children were jailed there for begging for food and it was the work of Preda Foundation to get them out and bring them to a safe home. They needed protection, therapy, support, and a new start in life.
I went to Police Station B and walked to the desk and greeted the police officer on duty, and I asked if there were any children detained. He said yes. So I went inside to the cells and heard a child crying. I went to a cell and there I was shocked to see a little six-year old child holding a soft drink can and crying her heart out. She was crying, “Mama, I want my Mama, Mama come for me.” It would break your heart if you saw her.
I found about eight other street children from six to 12 years old in that filthy cell. Most were sleeping on the dirty stone floor. A few feet away in the opposite cell was a half-naked man so close that he could almost touch the children. Rosi was terrified of him.
I was shocked when I saw the children, and Rosi crying, tears streamed down her face. She was made to be like a criminal behind the iron bars of the terrible, smelly empty cell. I felt very angry at this and immediately took out a camera and photographed Rosi as evidence of a crime committed against the children.
I immediately went to the police desk and told the police on duty they must release the children to the social workers immediately as the children were being traumatized and treated as criminals, and it was a violation of children’s rights to be detained in a jail cell. They seemed surprised as if they did not know that.
I advised the police to call the child care center to be ready to receive the children. Then after almost an hour, a police van with a wire cage on the back came to the police station and the children were released and put in the cage. I saw that they were brought safely to the child care center where they were given food and shelter.
Later I found out that Julia, the mother of Rosi, was a very poor street vendor selling peanuts to the passersby to survive and the child was with her. A corrupt local government official called a “tanod” or village guard would make all vendors pay him a fee to be allowed to sell informally on the streets. When Julia could not pay, as she earned only a little money, the “tanod,” arrested her child Rosi and locked her up in the police cell until Julia would pay to have her released. It was an extortion racket that the poor vendors suffered.
When Julia came looking to get Rosi out having borrowed money to pay the fee, she was told Rosi was in the child care center. So that is the story behind the photograph of Rosi holding the red soft drink can.
We are still campaigning to stop the jailing of minors as it is illegal. Today thousands of children are put into detention cells as local governments do not obey the juvenile justice and welfare law.
The Preda Foundation has safe and beautiful homes for many of these children. We cannot help them all. There will be many more jailed children like Rosi until the local government units do their duty and respect the law and the rights of the child.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.