Filipino children play in a school playground during break time in a village in the southern Philippines in this file Photo. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
We at the Preda Foundation, a rights' protection organization, recently opened a new home for troubled boys in Liloan, a few kilometers outside Metro Cebu in the central Philippines.
This was made possible by help from our supporters.
The children in Preda homes can be from 10 to 15 years old. Even when they have not reached the age of criminal liability, they are still jailed like criminals. So, we rescue them and provide a new start in life.
I have written about this in the past, but it is important to remind people of how innocent children are locked up.
I talked to a new group of boys now at the Preda home who were taken out of filthy jails or the sub-human conditions of so-called youth detention centers.
"You are the children of God and the most important in God's family," I told the boys. "That's why you are here — you are free and have rights and dignity."
I said they should think of God as a uniting force of eternal goodness and love as they stared with awe and bafflement after having just arrived and met the other boys.
Jason, 10 years old, jumped up, spread his arms and began to spin around in a playful demonstration of being free. Everyone laughed and enjoyed the moment.
The boys are living happily in a beautiful home in the countryside and experiencing basic rights and joys that we — who have never suffered gross injustice — take for granted. You may never value freedom until it is taken away.
The boys at the Preda Foundation's New Dawn Home for Boys in Conflict with the Law are not convicted or on trial. They are sent to get therapy to improve their troubled lives. They are free to run wherever they want in the grounds.
There are no guards, steel bars, wire cages or the brutal treatment they experienced in jails and youth detention centers where they were locked up like animals without sunlight, exercise, education or entertainment, affirmation or due legal process.
Being treated with respect, for the first time in their lives, is a wonderful thing.
We at Preda tell them that they have rights despite having made mistakes, often under the bad influences of adults. Our message is; "Now you can choose to live another, positive way."
They could scarcely believe this good news since few had ever experienced love and care.
They had been told that, as a burden on their families and society, they deserved imprisonment.
Now they are taught; "You are free here at the Preda New Dawn Home for boys. You can decide to stay or leave. Know that you are of importance, of value and are good in yourselves. Do not believe or think of yourselves as bad, criminal or useless young people."
Free of fear of reprimand or punishment, they can develop self-awareness and begin to grow as individuals. This is a vital part of being fully human.
The boys can dream of a happier future with children of their own.
And the attitudes the boys develop will impact on how they treat others.
These children have been branded as worthless thieves, drug dependents and social outcasts. But they are not. They lived abandoned on the streets, battling to survive on their own, and that is not a crime.
Good children that are misunderstood and unloved and branded as bad will likely become what they are called. Adults and parents must be careful never to physically, verbally or emotionally abuse children. They will rebel and find ways to retaliate. They feel injustice like everyone else.
At times I challenge parents of troubled, unruly and drug-taking children, how is it that your children were born innocent, but have become rebellious like this? I ask them; "Why do your children take painkillers, who is causing the pain? How have you treated and spoken to them as they grew up?"
I also ask; "How is it then that your son is here at Preda and has never run away, does not steal, not take drugs? Here, he is never violent and is helpful, does his duties, attends classes daily and respects the staff and other boys. Is he at fault or perhaps there is a problem in the home?"
Parents have often never been taught how to raise children properly. There were no school courses on how to be a good parent.
What really inspires the boys at the Preda home is knowing that their parents are willing to reconcile with them, including by admitting they have made mistakes and attending parenting seminars.
The parents must change their negative attitudes and love their children. This is what brings hope and a new life for the young ones.
*Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights, especially those of child victims of sex abuse.