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Champion of the Forgotten Children

October 2, 2006 ·  By Paul Ehrlich, Readers Digest

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The cell in Manila’ Pasig City Jail was so crowded inmates had to take turns sleeping on the cement floor. There was little ventilation or sunlight. The only toilet overflowed, and some prisoners had skin disease or tuberculosis. The adult inmates were there for murder, rape, armed robbery and drug abuse.

Also in the cell was Mark, a boy of just 13. He’d been arrested at a public market for stealing a metal gate worth about $6. According to Mark, some older kids had stolen it and given it to him and his friends to sell to a junk dealer.

His rights were violated from the start. Nobody was notified of his arrest, not even his parents, and when they found him more than two weeks later, they couldn’t afford his $230 bail.

Mark’s story is typical of kids in prison. He grew up in one of Manila’s cramped, dirty squatter villages – where crime rates are high and drug use is common – with his parents and seven siblings.

He had dropped out of school by Year Five. “It was boring and others didn’t go, so I didn’t either,” he says. He spent his days hanging out, smoking and talking with friends. The older boys often used impressionable, unsupervised kids like Mark to steal for them.

When Mark was arrested, he was thrown into a filthy, overcrowded cell. An overhead fan barely stirred the hot, sticky air. Disease-carrying mosquitoes were rife.

The noise and stench made sleep difficult. When he did sleep, he was often woken by cockroaches crawling over him. Mark’s emotions swung between fear and boredom. “I was afraid I’d never get out.”

One day a man started punching him in the head for no reason. Weighting only 32 kilos and standing 134 centimeters tall, Mark had little chance of defending himself, and nobody intervened. The attack left him with bruises and a black eye.

Not long after, Mark snapped. He stole a razor blade from the cell’s trustee and used it to cut his right forearm. “I don’t know why I did it,” he says. “I felt nobody cared.”

But someone did care: Mark’s plight had come to the attention of Father Shay Cullen, a crusading priest working to return the childhoods stolen from young prisoners.

A survey by UNICEF in September 2005 found 3700 children as young as nine in the prisons of Manila and other major Philippine cities. However, the number of children who pass through the country’s prisons each year is thought to be much greater. “It could be as high as 20,000 given the caseload of the public attorney’s office,” says Dale Rutstein, chief of communication at UNICEF Philippines.

With inadequate social services, imprisoned children are often left to fend for themselves. Not convicted of any crime – often only suspected of petty theft, substance abuse, begging and vagrancy – children have been locked up for months or years awaiting justice.

Many have been forced to share cells with adults accused of heinous crimes, and are subject to abuse and rape. “Although the boys are ashamed to admit it, some have privately disclosed in therapy that they have either witnessed or suffered sexual abuse while in prison,” says Shay.

Child prisoners are victims of outdated legislation and a rampant breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and current Philippine law.

When Father Shay first arrived in the Philippine from Ireland in 1969, he saw sick, neglected children living on the sidewalks and begging. Many were victims of paedophiles and drug dealers.

Later, visiting jails in Olongapo City, he was shocked to find children languishing in foul cells, frightened and unprotected. He knew he had to act.

In 1974, he established PREDA (Peoples’ Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation) a recovery home for abused children. Over the years it expanded and, in 2004, he opened the 55-bed PREDA recovery center for Boys in Olongapo City to help children rescued from jail return to a normal life.

The key to Father Shay’s success has been ensuring that children behind bars receive the due process and protections they are entitled to. “Children are rarely given the chance to meet with a lawyer before they are brought to court,” says Father Shay.

Adds Alberto Muyot,, an attorney and project officer with UNICEF Philippines: “Due to huge backlog of cases, children are often imprisoned for months for minor crimes while they await trial. Often they wait for a period longer than any sentence they would have received.”

But Father Shay and his team are persistent: “We look for the youngest and, starting there, we get the names, ages, charges and length of time inside, an d ask if they have met with a lawyer. We complete a checklist of rights that should have been violated.”

Next, PREDA asks the public attorney’s office about the status of each case. A court social worker must conduct a study for each child prisoner. To speed things up, PREDA often does research for overburdened social workers. “When things go well, the social worker recommends the judge release the child to PREDA while the case is ongoing,” Father Shay says.

He’s also an outspoken critic of the Philippine Justice system, and brings the world’s attention to it by writing newspaper articles, doing television interviews and heading up conferences in Europe and Asia. He has even testified before the United States Congress – but his high profile makes it harder for him to gain access to jails.

Mark was in jail four months before PREDA helped get him released. When we arrived at the PREDA centre, he kept to himself, refusing to join in games with the others. He often had nightmares about jail. One day he cut his hands with a broken mirror and bled profusely.

With the help of social workers, PREDA staff and a psychologist, Mark is making progress. He smiles more often. He talks about the future – going back to school and helping his parents. “I miss my family,” he says, his eyes welling up with tears. “I want them to be proud of me.”

FREEING CHILDREN from jail is often easier than freeing them from their emotional scars. When Father Shay first saw 13-year-old Robin, the stocky, good-looking boy was peering through the bars of Navotas Jail with frightened, abandoned eyes. The 30-squaremetre cell was packed with more than 40 people, some of them adults.

Living in the Manila suburb of Navotas, Robin hung out with a group of friends who sniffed solvent to get high. One of them told Robin to try it, but he didn’t like it – the fumes burned his nose and his head started buzzing. But someone saw the boys using the solvent and called the police. Robin was arrested.

It took three months to get him release into PREDA’s care. Project coordinator Robert Garcia remembers he was difficult to handle. “Most of the boys when they first come here are withdrawn, upset, frustrated, scared.”

PREDA uses emotional expression therapy to help the boys face up to their traumatic past. In a padded, dimly lit room, children can cry and scream to release pent-up anger and pain created by years of abuse and neglect.

When Father Shay first entered the room, Robin pounded the floor screaming, “No-one care! No-one cares!” Then tears that had been held back for a very long time flowed. “My mother doesn’t love me,” he cried over and over.

Robin’s parents hadn’t visited him in jail. He blamed himself, and missed them very much.

But today, more than two years after his release from prison, Robin bears little resemblance to the boy who first came to PREDA. He smiles, jokes and plays with other children. He talks about going back to school and has returned home.

PREDA lobbying on behalf of kids in Philippine prisons seems to be paying off. Earlier this year, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed a new Juvenile Justice Bill into law. Children under 15 are now criminally exempt and be immediately referred to a social worker, and the detention of children with adults is prohibited.

Although optimistic, Father Shay expects the changes will be slow to catch on. “The big challenge will be implementing the new law because of lack of co-operation between local government officials and government social workers,” he says.

Alberto Muyot of UNICEF Philippines believe it could be two years before the new provisions are fully implemented.

There’s a long way to go, yet thanks to Father Shay and his team, more than 160 children have been release from prison over the past two years and returned to their parents, or placed with PREDA or other child-welfare groups.

“We will never give up,” Father Shay says. “I can think of nothing more rewarding than saving a child, even just one. To provide a new childhood for the one that was robbed, this is truly seeing miracles at work.” End

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