17 and on the run for freedom
By Gloria Bauai
*Larry is a skinny youth, small for a 17-year-old. His long pants and t-shirt hang loosely from his body. His posture, still not comfortable to visitors, as he tells his story.
He has been on the run for months now, after being falsely accused of stealing from his employer.
He was a carrier for a local businesswoman named *Mary. He’d carry her second-hand clothes bales daily to and from her place to the market. Second-hand clothing is a popular and demanding market in the country, and makes good money.
Larry’s engagement wasn’t long before one of the bales went missing. Blaming Larry, Mary had him arrested and thrown in jail.
His first few days were spent in the adult jail before being transferred to the juvenile prison. His case was confusing right from the start.
The care was good though. Larry says there were three regular meals a day. He soon made friends with other inmates, and they looked out for each other.
“Those who’d been in there longer told us that if someone suggested the idea to escape, don’t try it!” Larry said.
So, Larry stayed put and attended several court hearings but his case never progressed.
A system meant to protect him had failed him. And behind bars he remained, for 6 months straight, even without formal charges.
“I would spend every day just thinking what went wrong,” he continues.
Larry hardly maintains eye contact. He looks up for a brief moment and switches his attention back to the stick he has been sharpening with a long machete.
Six months after having him arrested, Mary decided to drop the charges and Larry was released, only to be sought after by police again, as Mary had returned and filed another report against him.
But Larry managed to run-away before an arrest was made, and has been on the run since. His movement is restricted to his village only.
With a lot of time on his hands, Larry has built his own hut, at the river’s edge. He points to it.
The spot he chose is opposite the main village, on the other side of the river, isolated from the rest.
“I live with fear every day, that anytime they’ll show up and take me back to prison. I didn’t do anything and I don’t want to go down for something I didn’t do,” he adds.
Larry is agitated as the crowd around us start to increase.
Larry’s case lands on the desk of the local Child Protection officer, *Philip. Philip has been holding this office for years, but is under resourced, inadequately funded, and a lack of human resources to see all cases through.
Many other challenges face Philip every day. His office was broken into and all properties stolen. The 7-story office building was further damaged during the recent 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit the province in February.
Philip now shares office with another government official. But the work he does is too sensitive for it to be conducted in a public space.
UNICEF has begun building relationship with the government office, with a commitment to support. Both parties are sharing knowledge on a day-to-day basis towards finding a way to dealing with work better.
As a start , UNICEF will provide tents to allow for a separate interview corner, which will see privacy and confidentiality exercised with each case.
In the case of Larry, Philip as a protection officer will be advocating for his freedom.
To add weight to his argument, Philip must refer to the Lukautim Pikinini Act (LPA) 2015, which covers the rights of children in need of protection.
UNICEF during 2018 is continuing to support the division for community development to train Child Protection Officer on the Lukatutim Pikinini Act and Juvenile Justice Act as part of capacity building for effective response towards children in need of protection.
- Names have been changed to protect identities