Five children aged between four and 10 years spent more than 18 hours in a police cell after they were arrested on Sunday evening for allegedly stealing scrap metal.
Besides the cruelty of the act, this is being seen as an illegality and a gross violation of the children’s rights.
Besides the cold cell floor and wall and the night breeze, the young ones, who are aged four, five, eight and 10, slept on an empty stomach — all for taking away a sack of old tin cans and metal bars from a construction site.
Two of the children’s parents were also locked up by the police for alleged parental negligence.
One of the arrested women is the mother of three of the children and has been living with her niece, who was also detained, as was the father of a four-year-old boy.
Even though the children and their parents were released and all charges against them dropped, questions were still being raised over the decision to lock up children so young.
Police and the parents said the children were accused by a private school proprietor, Mr Isaac Kihagi, of stealing valuable metals from him.
He drove them to Naromoru Police Station, Nyeri County, shortly before 7pm.
Ms Rose Wangari had gone to run errands in Naromoru town in the afternoon, leaving her four-year-old son playing with a neighbour’s children.
When she returned in the evening, she could not find them. As darkness fell, the parents launched a search.
“We searched everywhere,” Ms Wangari told the Nation on Monday. “...even in toilets at the school and in neighbours’ homes.”
After a fruitless search, they decided to report the matter to the authorities.
But before that, they met Mr Kihagi, who told them he had taken the children to the police station for stealing from him.
Thus began a long night of begging and weeping by the parents as they pleaded with the police officers to let the children go.
Police arrested Ms Jaqueline Wairimu, the guardian of four of the children, on arrival at the station for “neglecting” the children.
Mr Robert Kariuki, the father of the other child, was locked up after he begged to swap places with his son.
“He told them to let our boy go home with me and they detain him instead,” Ms Wangari recalled.
“Instead, they beat him up and threw him into the cell. One officer said he would stay in custody because he asked for it.”
Mr Kariuki was put in the male cell while the children and Ms Wairimu were locked up in the women’s cell.
Mr Kariuki was also booked for causing a disturbance in a police station.
When their pleas to have the children released fell on deaf ears, the parents turned to begging the officers to let them feed the young ones.
This too, failed, and they were chased away.
“We were thrown out at around midnight. The poor children did not eat and did not even have sweaters because they were arrested while playing,” Ms Wangari said.
In another cruel act by the men in uniform, a shawl the relatives had brought for the children to cover themselves with was thrown out.
“We left behind a shawl to cover the children; this morning, we found it dumped outside the station. It is as if they do not have children of their own,” Ms Wangari said.
Kieni East OCPD Michael Mbaluku admitted that the children did not eat throughout the night, saying by the time they were brought in the other inmates had eaten all the food.
“By that time the food meant for inmates had run out but we fed them in the morning,” Mr Mbaluku said.
He nonetheless defended the decision to detain the children, saying:
“The children were not booked for the offence of stealing. They were held as special needs because we arrested the parents for negligence.”
However, upon their release, the OCPD said they had dropped the “criminal charge” against the minors.
The statement by the police boss, however, contradicts reports by the children’s relatives, who insisted that they were denied access to the minors.
“Why couldn’t they let the children go home and take us parents in, instead?” Mr Josephat Theuri, the father of three of the children, wondered.
“If at all they, indeed, stole, we would be the ones to pay and not the children.”
According to the county coordinator of children’s services, Mr Kung’u Mwaniki, the police had no reason to detain children that young and should have contacted his office.
“They should have contacted us, which they did not,” he said.
“And they had no reason to detain four-year-olds anyway. We will look into the matter and decide the next step.”
The children were released Monday afternoon, even as police insisted on charging the parents with negligence.