Girl’s drug case opens up debates

For about a month, 14-year-old Anabelle (not her real name) left home to stay with friends in a house in Barangay Labangon, Cebu City.

Her mother, a laundry woman, lost contact with her daughter until a month later when she heard the news on Aug. 9 that Anabelle was arrested for selling shabu worth P5.9 million($170,000).

What shocked Hannah (not her real name) was that her daughter was tagged by the police as a big-time drug mule.

Hannah immediately went to the police station in Barangay Punta Princesa where her daughter was detained. Although disappointed over what happened to her, Hannah gave Anabelle what she needed most: a hug.

Anabelle, described by the police as "very elusive," was arrested in her friend's house in Labangon after a two-week surveillance operation.

Taken from Anabelle were 301 grams of shabu, a disposable spoon, a lighter and a digital weighing scale.

When brought to the Cebu City prosecutor's office on Aug. 12, Anabelle kept her head down and sobbed on her mother's lap.

"I don't want to be charged," she told Cebu City Assistant Prosecutor Alex Gabud in Cebuano. The girl got what she wanted.

Juvenile law

Gabud dismissed the complaint against Anabelle because, under the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (Republic Act No. 9344), children 15 years old or younger at the time of the commission of the offence shall be exempted from criminal liability.

Minors age 16 or 17 may be held liable if they acted "with discernment," meaning they are aware of what they are doing.

Gabud said that since Anabelle is 14, she is exempted from criminal liability.

"The cases involving the child were erroneously filed in this office. In the first place, the police should not have brought her here (prosecutor's office)," Gabud said.

He said that under the law, the police should have turned over the girl to the local social welfare office and the parents should have been notified.

On Aug. 13, the girl was turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Services (DSWS) in Cebu City upon the order of the prosecutor.

Anabelle's mother said she wanted to bring her home but could not do so because Anabelle was placed under the custody of social workers.

"It is painful that I cannot be with my daughter, but I have to accept it. It is better than her landing in jail," she said in Cebuano.

Child safety

Alma Cabus of the DSWS said Anabelle had been put in a centre because, based on her assessment, the place where the mother lives is not conducive to the girl's proper upbringing.

"I'm also taking into consideration the safety of this child," Cabus said.

Anabelle has relayed to the police the names of the people who instructed her to sell drugs.

But the girl cannot be admitted to the government's Witness Protection Program (WPP) even if the police wanted to.

State Prosecutor Llena Ipong-Avila, regional enforcer of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) WPP, said they could not secure Anabelle because no case had been filed against her in court.

"Based on what we agreed upon, the DSWS should take custody of minor offenders. The DOJ may secure minor offenders if their parents also stay in our safe houses. In the case of Anabelle, I don't think this is possible," Avila said.

If Anabelle wants to return to school, Cabus said the DSWS would arrange for her entry into the Alternative Learning System, a programme of the Department of Education that teaches basic literacy to out-of-school youth.

Anabelle, the youngest of four children, is in Grade 5 but has not been attending classes regularly because of an infirmity.

Mother's task

Hannah, 49, who is suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes, said she never had any inkling that her youngest child would be involved in illegal drugs.

She admitted that she was unable to monitor Anabelle because she would be too tired and often go to sleep after she arrives home from work.

Anabelle told social workers that she preferred going with her friends than staying at home alone. She said her mother was out working while her three siblings have their own families.

Ester Concha, DSWS head, said many young people were hungry for attention and love.

"Because they don't feel loved by their parents, they look for substitutes. And so they go out with their friends, hoping to find the love they are longing for," she told the Inquirer.

But Concha said people should not be quick to condemn parents who have to leave their children because they have to work.

"We could not actually blame those parents who work hard to earn for their family. If they don't work, what will the family eat?" she said.

What children need

But Concha advised parents to spend "quality time" with their children despite their busy schedule.

"I've encountered a number of children in conflict with the law. I realised that all they need is to feel the love and care of their parents," she said.

Concha said some parents thought it was enough to give money to their children but money "can never substitute the love your kids need from you."

From January to July this year, the DSWS has recorded 300 youths arrested for various violations that included theft, murder and rape.

Of the number, 165 are at the Operation Second Chance, a facility for youth offenders in the hilly village of Kalunasan, Cebu City. The others are under the care of social workers.

Concha said she favoured amending the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 to discourage children from committing crimes.

"I think this law has been taken advantage of by syndicates. Children are being used to commit crimes," Concha said.

But lawyer Vincent Isles of the Children's Legal Bureau opposes the idea of putting minors behind bars or exposing them to criminal trial. He said Anabelle is a "victim of circumstances."

"She's not yet fully aware of the criminal consequences of her acts. When we punish child-victims, our society has doubly failed them-first, in keeping them away from criminal influences, and second, in punishing them for our failure to keep them from criminal influences," he said.

Isles said hauling minor offenders to jail would not solve the problem of their involvement in crimes.

Run after gangs

Instead, law enforcers should run after crime syndicates who continue to use children.

Senior Supt. Conrado Capa, police deputy director for operation in Central Visayas, said the continued arrest of minor offenders was "alarming."

"There are lots of factors involved here: poverty, the upbringing of children and the lack of facilities for minor offenders, among others. But all these boil down to the need to strengthen the family," he said in a phone interview.

Hannah blamed her daughter's friends for what happened to Anabelle.

But Hannah said she had forgiven Anabelle who had promised to reform. "I have forgiven her because she is my daughter. I cannot just abandon her," she said.