Monday, 23 November 2009 19:53

By Father Joe Maier, Bangkok Post Sunday, Spectrum Section, Nov. 22, 2009

With the sound of that lady judge's voice still ringing in her ears - even after three months in the kids' slammer for girls - Miss Angela came to us here in Klong Toey in a prison van from a Bangkok Girls' Remand Home - middle seat, sandwiched between two custodians.

That lady judge had said: "This is outrageous! Eighteen-hundred pills? Lock up this child and throw away the key, to protect her." Then sternly to the arresting officers: "You catch those criminals who used this child. Take her away. Hide her. Protect Her. Educate her as long as you can, at least till she's 18. Do whatever you have to do." And she added bitterly: "You tell the mother, if there is ever any buying and selling to do - and I do not want to know about any of it - tell her to sell herself - never her children!"


 

Miss Angela came to us a mess - skinny, lice, dirty fingernails, smelly, scratching herself, runny nose - "much past smiling". But that was an easy problem. A huge triple helping of ice-cream and cookies and junk food for all the girls, to welcome the new girl, plus a serious "scrub a dub" with sweet smelling soap, and this gook stuff you put in your hair to make the lice go away. New clothes. Promise she could go back to school the very next day. A phone call to her mum. And most of all, her two best girlfriends in school live here with us. Easy.

That she'd just come from girl's prison? Ho Hum. No big deal. She fitted right in. The girls played "rock, scissors, paper" to decide where her bed would be and her place at the table. It was that easy. The days turned to weeks, and weeks to months and months to years. She's one of those "hey, it's really stupid to try to get into trouble kids, plus those three months in Remand, well ..." She says she remembers every minute of those terrible days and nights. She's growing up happy. Now, she's in commercial college - grown up, from proper slum girl to a proper young woman.

But those three prison months - prison girls are cruel to nine-year-olds with brown hair and light skin. Western-looking slum girls who have never met their dads and wouldn't recognise them on the street. Most of all, the girls expressed total prison scorn and disgust for a girl so dumb she didn't know she was carrying drugs. That her mum lied to her! So stupid! Had she been an adult, she'd have been sentenced for life!

And she lived in total fear because some of the older girls wanted to touch her in the night. And when they tried, she would wet the bed and scream, waking up everyone, with everyone cursing her. Thus, her nickname: "Dumb Screaming Farang!" Especially the Dumb part! Dumb! So Dumb she didn't have a clue about the drugs. They'd tease her that she was a slow-witted water buffalo. Years later at our Mercy Centre, she would still sometimes wake up in the night screaming. Took a while to stop the bed wetting she'd done for self protection.

The Remand Home folks were worried. She was not eating. They phoned us - we know them, and have an agreement with the Ministry of Justice. Could we protect a girl from Klong Toey? If she stayed with us, could we keep the bad guys away?

After some "horse trading", we paid her bail. Usual bail fee for both children and adults runs at 5,000 baht for the first pill and then down to 3,000 baht for each additional pill. Nine-year-old Miss Angela had 1,800 pills in her knapsack. The court asked us, as a mutual gesture of goodwill, would we post 20,000 baht, which would be refunded later?

HOW IT STARTED

Nine years old. Two older sisters, who could have done the drug runs but mum didn't trust them. They'd talk. Brag. Show off. Tell their boyfriends. Maybe borrow a pill or two or three from the stash, and sell it themselves for cigarette money. So Angela, who had never been in trouble a day of her life, became mum's sucker girl.

Mum asked her, very sweetly, to wear this new backpack with her school uniform - to take the Klong Toey ferry across the river and give the backpack to the fat lady. The fat lady would give her a backpack in return that looked just like the one she was carrying. Easy. Mum would buy the ferry ticket.

The scheme worked for a while.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT

The undercover police lady had noticed. A schoolgirl, out of place, an adult buying a ticket for her, then sending her across the river alone. They grabbed Angela and tried to tackle her. Angela bit the police lady and squirmed away.

She ran, screaming for mum, but mum was gone! Mum always told her about strangers. Run and scream. Find a lady selling veggies or fish. She will protect you, even if she doesn't know you. Or jump in the river. Scream louder. Don't get caught! Ever.

Of course, the police did catch her, and her stash of 1,800 pills. That first night in jail, they locked her in the adult cell with the women (they had nowhere else to keep her), but the guards made sure the child slept up front, all curled up but with one foot sticking through the bars, next to the cell door, where everyone could see her. They even made jokes, saying her foot was still free! Plus one of the women, a "card-game regular" at the police station, was a next-door slum neighbour. How do you tell a nine-year-old that her mum has used her? Used her bad. Auntie Neighbour Lady held her through the nighttime prisoner noises and groans and shadows till the morning light, when the ghosts and bad spirits crept off to wherever they hang out during the daylight hours.

It would have been Angela's fifth trip across the river. Her mum had agreed with the agents to seven trips to clear all debts. Angela did not see mum for five years. That's what the judge ordered. Phone calls, well, not often, but okay. But Angela stopped that. Tired of mum crying over the phone telling her how sorry she was.

Mum lied. Oh she lied. Said that Granny (whom Angela had never met, and found out later never existed) needed special medicine.

But the loan was real. Mum borrowed at the normal slum rates of 20 baht interest per day per every 100 baht.

MUM'S'S DEBT

On the payback, she miscalculated. Forgot to factor in the weather. It was storm season on the high seas, meaning there were few ships in port, thus no sailors or middle-aged lads looking for a midnight massage from a not-so-thin-anymore 46-year-old lady with a bit of grey hair, plus a few sags and wrinkles. Finding folks who wanted midnight massages was not as easy as in years gone by.

Mum simply could not make payments.

The moneylenders smirked. Give us Angela for only three days to cover all debts, plus we'll buy the little darling a new school uniform and a teddy bear. Back to the third grade. No one will ever know the difference. We'll return her safe and sound the day after tomorrow.

Mum knew of a slum neighbour girl, Angela's age, who was never heard of again. Such accidents are not that uncommon in Klong Toey, certainly never spoken of, even among closest relatives and friends. No one talks of missing kids.

So mum felt she had no choice.

After Angela was caught, mum started drinking by the bottle, not the glass. The brokers still wanted their money. Mum paid in dribs and dabs, mostly not even making interest on her debt.

But slum women stick together. Finally, the wife of a guy well known in Klong Toey asked her husband to ask a long-time friendly policeman to please "have a conversation" with those two bad guys.

ANGELA AT MERCY CENTRE

She was with us almost 10 years, and this was her home. She grew up here, and was known as "Ann" - everybody's big sister. Always there for her younger sisters to listen, to help with homework. To hold and dry tears. Everybody called her "Pee Ann" (older sister Ann). Without a doubt, the most pleasant girl in the house. Above average in her studies. One day, she announced: "I'm ready to go back to my other home."

She went back home on her 19th birthday. The girls in the house threw a party. Giggles and laughter and tears.

She lives just down the street. A five-minute walk. She continues her studies. That was the agreement. She attends Commercial College, almost an honours student in her final year. She stops in to see us now and then, and always tells the younger girls they should never, ever carry drugs, not even for their mum.

No serious boyfriends. She likes boys, but just isn't ready. She wants to finish school, so she can always get a good job, pay her own way. Doesn't want to depend on any man for her living.

The bad guys who had her run drugs? One was shot dead in a card game. The other died of some disease.As for "older sister Ann", all the girls in the house are already planning a big fun party when she graduates.