Eric has a dream of flying a rainbow-colored rocket to Saturn. Although he has lost his baby teeth, he is still small for his age. His tiny shoulders are exposed by his white checked shirt.
“What are you most upset about in therapy?” His social worker questions him. He looks at the ground and says, “I cry about mine parents,”
Fedalyn Marie Baldo spent many months with Eric, his 10-year old sister Maria, and his two older brothers to help him understand that their childhood is not normal.
All four children had to perform live sex shows around the world for paedophiles all over the world, even though their neighborhood was asleep.
Their mother filmed them being raped, abused sexually and repeatedly molesting them. They were also raped by their aunt, uncle, and father.
After a dispute, it was the father of the children who reported his wife and her family the police. Investigators found evidence that the payments were made to the family using accounts in the UK, and Switzerland.
Eric and his siblings ended up in Preda’s home, where they were able to help sexually abused children.
This has been Ms Baldo’s job for 17 year. Images and videos of child sexual abuse in the Philippines have grown to be a billion-dollar industry. It is now the largest known source of this exploitation.
It has been possible despite poverty and high-speed internet access.
Then, the pandemic. The pandemic swept the globe after more than two years of lockdowns, and some of world’s longest school closings. It left vulnerable children at home with desperate parents who were cash strapped.
Unicef and Save the Children recently found that one in five Filipino children is at risk of being sexually exploited. This puts the number close to two million.
Ms. Baldo is concerned that abuse may be “normalized” in the Philippines, and could become an epidemic in some of the country’s poorest areas.
President Bongbong Marcos declared an “all out war” against child sexual abuse and the industries it has fueled. It’s not a war that the Philippines has won.
As the clock ticks towards dawn in Manila, a National Bureau of Investigation team has assembled near a cemetery.
The team leader will give a final briefing and flashlights will be kept low. Guns are loaded, guns are loaded, and cameras are ready for filming evidence. They feel under immense pressure to achieve results.
One family lives amongst the graveyards of this densely populated area. In a small wooden hut against the cemetery’s largest monuments, a 36-year-old mother uses her smartphone to check her phone.
She believes she is texting an Australian paying customer who wants to have sex with her children. Her texts actually go to an undercover officer.
Around a dozen officers race through narrow streets to her door as she switches on the camera. The only warning sign is when the stray dog barks.
As a female officer, she offers no resistance and takes the children to safety. Others begin to bag evidence: sex toys. Smartphones. Receipts detailing international payments.
This arrest, like many others, was made after a tip from overseas.
According to the Australian Federal Police, a man was found at an airport with a storage unit containing explicit child abuse videos. The phone contained messages between the man and a Filipino woman asking for money in return for the videos.
It took several officers weeks to plan the operation and resulted in two arrests. One was in Manila, the other in Sydney.
Officials in Australia reported that they had seen an increase in child exploitation reports by around 66% over the past year.
They work with teams from the International Justice Mission and the UK National Crime Agency, as well as officers in the Philippines to identify child sex offenders. After identifying them, they attempt to trace the source of the material.
Often, however, only the child will report the abuse. It’s not an easy road.
Many social workers claim they must spend days or even weeks pushing the local police to rescue the children, and to file charges against their parents.
“Sometimes we have the cooperation of law enforcement authorities. Other times, the actions of those who are supposed to protect children are delayed. We have to find a way around it,” Emmanuel Drewery, Preda.
In the 1970s, the organization established a children’s home in Olongapo for girls. This was once the home of a large American naval base.
It was a center for sextourism – illegal prostitution between Filipina girls and foreign men. Many of these girls were still in their teens when they were trafficked into the industry or forced into it by economic hardship and family pressure.
Social workers have realized that much of the sexual abuse suffered by the children is generational. Many of the mothers of these children were also raped and sexually assaulted. Their view is that “It happened to my mother, I did it to survive, and so must you.”
Preda’s president Father Shay Cullen has been fighting for the rights and well-being of the Philippines’ abused children since 1974. He is seeking a global solution for this growing problem.
“There must be an international law. This is the only way. All national governments must put restrictions on internet corporations. They should cooperate to limit the flow of child abuse material as well as the streaming of sexual abuse of children online.
He agrees that things are changing but it is slow.
However, this is only one aspect of the war. Preda and other organizations are fighting for the rehabilitation of children.
Preda offers some of the most difficult healing. Preda has a dark room and soft music.
The floors and walls are covered with large pads, which gymnasts use to ensure a smooth landing. The only light is from the open door.
Five children are kneeling in front of the wall, each one in their own space. The majority of them face the wall.
As they pound the pads, the overwhelming sound is the irregular thud of the feet and fists.
Your heart stops when you hear the first raw, desperate cries. It starts all over again. But it is difficult to listen, even if you are only a few seconds away.
The cushioned walls were surrounded by questions. What did I do? What was I thinking? These are heartbreaking.
The therapist is quiet inside, waiting to assist.
Francisco Bermido Jr., president of Preda, says “It all starts in the room.”
“If they can confront their abusers at the ‘primal room’, they will be able to move forward to face them in court. These emotions include hate for their abusers and hate for those they have told but did not believe.
This form of emotional release therapy, called primal, has been used by Preda for decades to help children deal with the emotional effects of sexual and physical abuse.
They are also struggling to find the resources they need. The centre in Manila cannot afford to house 100 children per year. Many more children are in dire need of assistance.
Children can be sent to any number of homes or orphanages after a police report has been filed. However, many do not have the experience or training to care for those who have been abused.
Eric’s older brother, who was not his siblings, was the first to be placed in an orphanage nearby before he was transferred to the Preda center.
According to social workers at the centre, around 40% of children who have been abused are now living in safety. They are encouraged by every success.
Routine is key. The centre offers a daily program of schoolwork, volleyball and karate, as well as storytelling and therapy sessions.
Eric exclaims, “I love karate,” as he laughs and punches in the air.
He enjoys singing and joins his friends at the playroom. He sings softly when it is his turn to sing solo. His confidence grows as he sings and his voice booms throughout the room.
One of his older brothers is still too traumatized to speak. Ms Baldo warns that their sister Maria speaks very little.
Maria was beaming that day, holding onto her pencil case or soft toy. She was curious and eager to find out more. She wanted to feel the feeling of a snowflake.
Mr Bermido Jr. says that they arrived “very meek, docile, and untrusting the world and other people.”
They are now able to tell the social workers their entire story, down to the most horrific details, months later. The Philippines’ courts required that all four children testify against their families.
He adds, “That’s really very important because that is where their quest to justice begins.”
Maria and Eric both attend the group storytelling session. He lies next to Maria and wiggles his hands around her ponytail.
Ms Baldo questions Maria about Cinderella. She replies, “Cinderella didn’t give up even during difficult times, even the most difficult situation, she still had hope,” she said, hugging her soft toy even tighter.