Case study: what the Philippines is doing to end online child abuse


This article is written by Juvy Mae T. Navarro, social welfare officer at the Department of Social Welfare and Development in the Philippines. Navarro is also a 2020 WePROTECT Global Alliance Fellow, a global programme to end exploitation of children, hosted in partnership with Apolitical. 

This article was originally published on Apolitical.

Patricia (not her real name) is an 11-year old child who is currently in the protective custody of the Philippine Government after she was rescued in May 2020 from online sexual exploitation. Her alleged trafficker is her mother, while the whereabouts of her father are unknown since they have been separated since Patricia was three years old.

She is an only child and her family are rural migrants. Her mother was laid off from work when the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak stymied demand from the factory she was working in. A man she met on social media offered her money in exchange for photos of Patricia, and that was how the exploitation of her child started. The rescue happened during the enforced community quarantine that had been in place due to the pandemic, and there was no way to return her immediately to her relatives. Therefore, the rescuing social workers decided to refer her to a residential care facility for protective custody.

A crisis of poverty and perception

In a recent study conducted by the faith-based anti-human trafficking organisation, International Justice Mission (IJM), key findings show that online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) in the Philippines is usually a family-based crime. Traffickers tend to be young Filipina women who are related to the child and financial gain is a common motivation for traffickers to commit OSEC.

This is not surprising in a country where 16.7% of the population — 17.7 million Filipinos — lived in poverty in 2018. By engaging in OSEC, family members and relatives can get access to easy money. At the same time, even the least lucrative forms of OSEC, such as sending photos, is equivalent to more than a few days of minimum wage pay.

Patricia’s mother does not believe that she is exploiting her child because she was only sending photos of the child to the customers, and the payment she received from them is what sustains them

Aside from poverty, another important aspect is the availability of employment opportunities. In 2020, the unemployment rate reached 10%, and 4.6 million Filipinos above the age of 15 found themselves unemployed. Given this grim economic environment, some Filipinos resort to the easy way of obtaining financial gains through committing OSEC.

Morally speaking, some traffickers do not see OSEC as a crime even if they receive payments for it, since their children are not touched and physically violated by their customers, who can only see their children’s bodies online. This was the case with Patricia’s mother. She does not believe that she is exploiting her child because she was only sending photos of the child to the customers, and the payment she received from them is what sustains them. She is also not convinced that the experience will have a lasting impact on Patricia as she was not physically touched or harmed by the customers.

A commitment to end child abuse

To coordinate the interventions of all stakeholders in addressing all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children, the Philippine Government formed the Committee for the Special Protection of Children (CSPC).

A significant accomplishment of the CSPC is its Case Management Protocol. It highlights the roles and responsibilities of the different government agencies based on the principal and comprehensive law for the protection of children against abuse and exploitation. It also serves as a guide of all concerned government agencies, non-government organisations and stakeholders, instituting a set of standards that will ensure the protection of rights of child survivors of abuse, neglect and exploitation throughout the case management process.

A significant part of the Case Management Protocol is the mandate that social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) have to assign children to protective custody. Protective custody shall be implemented if the investigation discloses sexual abuse, serious physical injury or life-threatening neglect to ensure the child’s safety. The child shall be immediately removed from the home or establishment where the child was found and must be placed under the protective custody of DSWD.

When non-offending relatives are not qualified and no concerned citizen is available to provide protective custody to the adolescent survivors of abuse, the government steps in and makes them wards of the State by placing them in its residential care facilities.

Because Patricia’s mother couldn’t see the harm she had caused, the rescuing social workers decided to put her under protective custody in a government RCF. There was no way for them to escort the child to her relatives in the province because of Covid-related travel restrictions

The residential care facility (RCF) is a 24-hour group care that provides alternative family care arrangements to poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals or families in crisis whose needs cannot be adequately met by their families and relatives or by any other forms of alternative family care arrangements over a period of time.

It provides the following services to children survivors of abuse, neglect and exploitation: social services, homelife services, educational services, vocational and skills training program, health/ medical services, dietetic services, psychological services, socio-cultural recreation, spiritual enhancement, legal/ paralegal assistance and progressive integration with family and community.

When a child survivor of OSEC is admitted in a residential care facility, the other aspects of the case management process are still fulfilled by the appropriate government agencies. Law enforcement relative to the OSEC case are still managed by the National Bureau of Investigation or Philippine National Police. The Philippine Department of Justice on the other hand manages the prosecution of the case. These interventions are done in coordination with the OSEC survivor’s social worker in the RCF.

Managing mandates

In Patricia’s case, and in other cases of children who have been rescued from abusive and exploitative situations, a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders involved is very important in effecting a well-coordinated implementation of child protection policies.

Because Patricia’s mother couldn’t see the harm she had caused, the rescuing social workers decided to put her under protective custody in a government RCF. There was no way for them to escort the child to her relatives in the province because of Covid-related travel restrictions.

There was also no trusted person of the child in the community who can take her in for protective custody since their neighbours are afraid of meddling with their family’s affair and of contracting the disease. As a last resort and for the best interest of Patricia, she was referred to a residential care facility, knowing that the child will be provided with the necessary interventions needed for her healing and recovery from her abusive experience.

It is a given that the various government agencies involved in preventing OSEC and other form of child abuse have different mandates and roles; however, they should find a common ground where they can collaboratively work with each other for the sole purpose of protecting the rights of the children they serve. In the Philippines, the CSPC Case Management Protocol became the venue for the different government agencies to coordinate their interventions for child protection, including OSEC cases. Through the coordinated efforts of all stakeholders involved, the provision of necessary services and interventions for the children survivors of abuse is guaranteed while their rights are upheld and protected. — Juvy Mae T. Navarro

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WeProtect Global Alliance or any of its members.

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