MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES – A trial that has been mired in a broken justice system for nearly seven years finally ended last month: A man was convicted for sexually assaulting his niece, Verla.*
Now a 19-year-old college student studying to become a social worker, Verla was excited to hear that justice had finally been done. Verla had participated in the trial by courageously testifying in court about the abuse. IJM attorney Lisa Guevara-Garcia represented Verla during that trial, and she added, "The court's decision recognizes and affirms that Verla spoke the truth and that her testimony was not in vain."
An Uncertain Beginning
Verla was born in the U.S., but she grew up in the Philippines. When her mother was deported, Verla, only 4 at the time, went back to the Philippines, facing a very uncertain future. Her mother could not provide a stable home for her daughter, so Verla moved in with an aunt and uncle.
Instead of receiving the care and consistency she desperately needed, Verla was emotionally abused by relatives who should have loved her, and sexually assaulted by an uncle who should have protected her. She said her cousins constantly teased and harassed her, and she fell behind in school because she was forced to do so many chores at home.
After suffering in silence for years, Verla told a classmate about the sexual abuse she was experiencing at home. Their teacher got involved, and Verla was at last removed from the violence. She moved into a safe and loving aftercare shelter that would become the home she had always longed for.
Massive Obstacles to Justice
Although Verla was learning how to move forward, the case that had been filed against her uncle was at a standstill. When IJM learned about the case in 2007, her uncle was on the run and no one was actively looking for him. IJM investigators started working with police to develop new leads, and in 2008 the man was arrested and detained. IJM lawyer Lisa prosecuted the case from beginning to end.
"IJM gave me hope to continue seeking justice when I was in the stage of nowhere. IJM was the one who supported me in pursuing justice that I wanted to achieve."
IJM social workers helped Verla work through the trauma that had defined much of her childhood, and Verla decided to take an active part in the trial against her uncle. That brave decision to speak up about the abuse from the witness stand meant she would have to face the man once again. As Verla answered questions in court, she broke down into tears. But later that day, when she was debriefing with her IJM social worker, she insisted on returning for the next phase of the trial. She knew she had the support she needed to keep going; Verla later said, "IJM gave me hope to continue seeking justice when I was in the stage of nowhere. IJM was the one who supported me in pursuing justice that I wanted to achieve."
In addition to Verla's testimony and the medical evidence of abuse, IJM helped find witnesses who backed up Verla's story in court. There was plenty of evidence to prove that her uncle was guilty, but still the trial dragged on. There is a massive backlog of cases in the Philippines' court system. Hearings are usually scheduled months apart in the specific courthouse where Verla's case was being heard, and these hearings are frequently postponed when a witness, lawyer or even judge fails to show up.
In Verla's case, months turned to years—there were some years when only one or two hearings was even scheduled. IJM's lawyers refused to let Verla's case get lost in the unwieldy system, and they persevered despite the frustrations and setbacks.
Finally, on October 29, 2013—nearly seven years after IJM got the case—the court issued a ruling: The man was convicted and faces up to eight years in prison.
The court's decision reaffirmed what Verla already knows for herself: that she matters. Thanks to dedicated IJM social workers and staff at the aftercare home where she lived for eight years, Verla understands that the abuse that happened to her does not define her. And she's eager to help other girls see that too. Over the years, Verla has helped mentor IJM clients and survivors of sexual violence. Even when she was living at the aftercare shelter, Verla helped as a "volunteer aid" to support the other children and young women living there. She said: "It's good to be a sister and support other abused girls. It gives [them] the courage and the inspiration."
Verla worked hard to complete a national test that is similar to a high school diploma (like the GED in the U.S.). IJM helped her apply to college, and Verla is now in her second year. She's on a scholarship, and she's on track to become a social worker. Verla says taking care of others who have been in situations like her has become her passion.
Verla still meets with her IJM social worker, and now they often talk about what Verla is learning in her social work classes. Sometimes the lectures bring up old feelings and sad memories, but Verla has said that the course work has actually helped her understand herself better than before. In a recent meeting, her IJM social worker said, "Verla is ready to take on the challenges of helping others rebuild their lives."