CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – Five children as young as 2 years old were rescued from online sexual exploitation three months ago. Their story of freedom is still unfolding.
The rescue operation took six months of careful planning and investigation following a tip from British officials. A man living in London was convicted earlier this year for sexually abusing and exploiting children via webcam. The authorities traced the origin back to a cybersex trafficking ring in the Philippines.
The Filipino woman who was allegedly using her home computer to profit from the online sexual exploitation of these five children is now in custody and facing charges.
The case is complicated and tragic on many levels: The main suspect is the mother of two young victims: a 2-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy named Maarko.*
"I had mixed emotions while listening to their stories,” IJM social worker Carmelita shared soon after the rescue operation. "I could not understand the logic of these suspects in abusing their own family members. This is a very traumatizing experience for the victims and will definitely affect the way they look at their future.”
IJM social workers helped government officials document their stories, then create plans for each child’s long-term care. The children are now at a government aftercare shelter where they are beginning to heal and establish new norms. It’s primarily a center for survivors of domestic abuse and sex trafficking, but the social workers are eager to keep the fragile family together.
The Beginning Point
"Rescue is really the beginning point on the road to real freedom,” explains Ann Knapp, IJM aftercare training and development specialist. "Particularly for these children who were abused by a trusted adult, we must help reframe how they understand the abuse and their innocence in it—that the shame and guilt is not theirs to bear. Understanding why a loved one is now in jail, learning to trust new caregivers—it’s an amazing amount of adjustment and a lot for a child to understand.”
Maarko and his older cousins (7 and 13 years old) are back in school. The staff at the aftercare home helped them transfer to a new school so they won’t fall behind in class or face questions from old classmates.
IJM social workers visit the children at the home weekly, and a staff member recently shared that the children "have a glow of playfulness. They love to tease; they smile and laugh constantly.”
Ann adds that while the journey ahead will be long, she has hope: "People are resilient. Children are incredibly resilient. Through quality, trauma-informed care and new loving support systems, living in true freedom is indeed possible.”
*A pseudonym. Posted on November 23, 2015