CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – IJM helped anti-trafficking police rescue three sisters—the youngest only 2 years old—from their home, where they were being sexually abused in videos broadcasted online. The police arrested and charged the mother and father under the Philippines' anti-trafficking law.
Investigation Reveals Siblings Being Exploited in Their Own Home
Earlier this year, the United States Homeland Security and Investigations referred this case to the Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force in Cebu, a specialized unit within the Philippine National Police. The anti-trafficking unit has worked closely with IJM in the past, and the police called IJM for assistance with the complex investigation. It would be the first online child exploitation case for this police unit.
The siblings were being exploited in their own home, located in a run-down neighborhood on an island increasingly known for sourcing child pornography. The parents are accused of posting live video of sexual abuse of their children to the internet—child pornography that foreign pedophiles could easily watch in real time.
Anti-Trafficking Police Lead Complex Rescue Operation
On September 4, 2013, the anti-trafficking police led a sting operation to rescue the children before they were once again exploited. Eighteen officers executed the search warrant—all of whom have gone through IJM's training on anti-trafficking investigations and techniques. IJM and the U.S. Homeland Security and Investigations provided technical support on the operation, and a new computer forensic unit within the Philippine National Police collected evidence.
When the rescue team entered the small concrete bungalow, a computer was set up with a webcam, and a "show" was about to begin. The girls' father started yelling for his children and wife to run. Police were able to rescue three of the children, including a 2, 9 and 11-year-old, but two other siblings ran away. A search continues to bring them to safety.
Some of the female police officers built rapport with the three girls, gently explaining that they were there to help and the sisters were not in trouble. Police arrested the parents, while a crowd of neighbors gathered outside. When crowds form during anti-trafficking operations, there is always the threat of mob violence; but this crowd started clapping when they realized what was happening, cheering on the good action of law enforcement in their neighborhood.
When crowds form during anti-trafficking operations, there is always the threat of mob violence; but this crowd started clapping when they realized what was happening, cheering on the good action of law enforcement in their neighborhood.
Despite the fact that this was the unit's first operation to combat online child exploitation, the collaboration was remarkable. One of the IJM staff members on the operation noted that the officer-in-charge did "an excellent job using cutting-edge techniques to conduct a successful sting operation" and prevent more online exploitation from taking place.
Heart-breaking Past, a New Future
IJM and government social workers were on the scene to provide immediate crisis counseling and support to the three sisters—2, 9 and 11 years old. They drove with the girls to HerSpace—a temporary shelter for sex trafficking survivors where they receive critical care and answer questions in safety.
In the car, the children asked many questions. They also gave articulate answers that seemed rehearsed and "polished," indicating they had been coached on what to say if ever questioned about what was going on behind closed doors and in front of the webcam. But as they continued to talk, one girl said she had "told my parents to stop that, even though we are poor."
At HerSpace, the girls continued to open up. The 11-year-old answered some basic questions, and she said her mother had made them do the "shows." One of the IJM lawyers who was there said it was incredibly heart-breaking to hear, adding that "the people who should be protecting her (her parents) were the very ones exploiting her."
IJM helped the girls settle into the shelter for the night, and social workers will continue to visit them and develop a plan to make sure they get the long-term care they need. IJM and police continue to search for the two other siblings, who are still missing. There will be challenges in the days ahead as the sisters process the betrayal and trauma they endured, but IJM and staff at the aftercare home will make sure the sisters are no longer alone in their suffering.