Eric dreamed of flying a rainbow-colored rocket to Saturn. Eric is small for his years, but he just lost his baby tooth. His small shoulders show his white, checked shirt.
“What is it that you cry about during therapy?” His social worker asked him. “I’m crying about my parents,” he said, staring at the ground.
Fedalyn Marie baldo spent months with Eric and his 10-year-old sister Maria to help them understand that this is not a normal childhood.
The four children performed live sex shows for paedophiles throughout the world during years when their neighbour was asleep.
They were repeatedly abused and raped by their mother. Their aunt and uncle, as well as their father, took part in the rape.
The father of the children reported his wife, and her family, to police after a dispute. Investigators located accounts in the UK as well as Switzerland that had been used to trace payments to the family.
Eric, his brother and sister ended-up at Preda, a charity that focuses on sexually abusing children, months later.
For 17 years, Ms Baldo has had this job. Over the years, the Philippines has become the most well-known and profitable source of child sexual exploitation, with images and videos worth billions of dollars.
The key ingredients to keeping it going are grinding poverty, high-speed Internet access, and the ability to accept English instructions.
Then, the pandemic. After more than two decades of lockdowns and some the longest school closures in history, vulnerable children were left at home by cash-strapped parents looking for money.
Unicef/Save the Children have just released a study that estimates that approximately one fifth of Filipino children are at risk from sexual exploitation. That puts the grim number at close to two millions.
Ms. Baldo worries that abuse is becoming more common in the Philippines and could spread to the poorest parts of the country.
President Bongbong Marcos has declared an ‘all-out war’ on child sexual abuse, and the industry that it has encouraged. The Philippines isn’t winning this war.
A National Bureau of Investigation team has been seen gathering near a graveyard in Manila as the clock ticks toward dawn.
As the team leader gives their final briefing, flashlights are kept low and guns are loaded. Cameras are ready to record evidence. They are under great pressure to deliver results.
A family lives among the dead in the city’s densely populated cemetery. A 36-year old mother is using her smartphone in a small wooden cabin built against one of the largest monuments in the cemetery.
She claims she is messaging an Australian customer, who wants to arrange sex shows with her three children. She is actually sending her messages to an undercover cop officer.
A dozen officers rush to her door after she switches on her camera. The only warning she gets is when the stray canines start to bark.
She is a strong woman officer who takes the children safely and other female officers begin to gather evidence, such as smartphones, sex toys, receipts detailing foreign payments, and receipts.
Like many other arrests, it is also the result of a tip-off received from abroad.
The Australian Federal Police reported to the BBC that they found a man in an airport carrying a storage device containing explicit child abuse video clips. His phone was alleged to have contained messages between him, and a Filipina woman requesting money for the videos.
This operation took many officers weeks to plan, and led to two arrests. One in Manila and one in Sydney.
Australian officials claimed that there had been an increase of 66% in reports about child exploitation over the last year.
They will be working with the International Justice Mission, the UK National Crime Agency, the National Police of the Netherlands and officers from the Philippines in an effort to catch child sex offenders. Once they have identified the child sex offenders, they will try to find the source.
Of course, the only way to report abuse is if the child comes forward. Even then, it is a long road ahead.
Some social workers state that they are required to push local police for rescue of the children and the filing of charges against the parents.
“Sometimes, we get the cooperation of law enforcement officials, but other times, the actions taken by people who are supposed really to protect children can be delayed. “But we have to work around that,” says Emmanuel Drewery of Preda.
In 1970, the first children’s home was established by the organisation near Olongapo port. Once home to large American naval bases, it is now a private home for girls.
It had been a major hub for sextourism, which is illegal prostitution between Filipina women and foreign men.
Social workers believe that much of this sexual abuse is generational. They also fear that many of the victims’ mothers were also raped, or sexually assaulted, over the years. They say that it happened to them, and they did it for survival.
Preda president Father Shay Cullen is a Filipino activist for the rights to abused children. He has been doing so since 1974. He seeks a global solution to this problem that is growing.
“There must be international law. This is the only possible way. All national governments should put limits on the internet corporations. They must cooperate to prevent the transmission of child abuse material and online streaming of the sexual abuse against children.
He believes that things are improving, but only slowly.
But this is just one aspect of war. Preda is a group that works to help children.
Preda’s dark rooms are where the hardest healing takes place, with soft music playing in background.
Large pads are found on the floors and walls – these are the ones gymnasts would use to soften landings. The only light source is the open door.
Five to five children are kneeling each in their own spaces. They are most often facing the wall.
It is the unsettling sound of their feet and fists as they crush the pads.
It’s hard to believe that the first anguished, raw cries can make your heart stop. Then it begins again. It’s hard to hear them even from afar.
The cushions were bombarded with questions. Why me? What did you do? They are heartbreaking.
A therapist sits in silence, ready to help.
Francisco Bermido Jr. president of Preda says, “It all starts inside the room.”
“If they are capable of confronting the abusers at the ‘primal room’, they will be able to move forward and confront the abusers at the court-room. These emotions are hateful towards their abusers as well as hatred towards those they have told but did not believe.
Preda used this form – known as primal – for decades in order to help children overcome the emotional trauma of physical and sexual abuse.
But they struggle for resources. Their center near Manila can only take in around 100 children each year. There are many others who need our help.
A police report can be filed to allow children to be taken to various homes or orphanages. Many don’t have the experience or training necessary to care for abuse victims.
Eric’s older brother was placed first in an orphanage near him without his siblings. He was then moved to the Preda Centre.
Social workers at the centre estimate that 40% of abused children who are in their care live safe lives. Every success keeps them going.
Routines are important. The centre provides a daily schedule that includes schoolwork, volleyball, stories, and therapy.
Eric shouts “I love power dance, karate and primal,” while he smiles as he punches the air.
He loves singing, and often joins his friends in the playground. He starts singing softly, but then he gains confidence and his voice is heard throughout the room.
One of his older siblings is still too traumatized for him to talk. Their sister Maria, Ms Baldo warns them, speaks very little.
Maria smiled and held onto her prized pencil case. She wanted to know how a snowflake felt.
Mr Bermido Jr. explains that they arrived “very meek and docile” upon arrival.
However, their stories are finally told to social workers months later. According to the Philippine courts, all four children must also testify against their parents.
He says, “That’s really very important because that is where their quest to justice begins.”
Maria and Eric attend the group storytelling sessions. He sits next her and inadvertently curls his fingers around the ponytail of Maria.
Ms Baldo asked Maria about Cinderella. Maria replied, “Cinderella did persevere even through difficult times. Even in the worst situation, she had hope.” She hugged her soft, cuddly toy closer.