• Investigators arrest a woman accused of selling her children for sex. (SBS Dateline)
Filipino kids as young as 7 are being sexually abused by their parents and sold for sex to paedophiles from the West. We follow an undercover team trying to infiltrate this murky world and stop the abuse of children.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, June 20, 2017 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

In the Philippines, primary school aged children are being sold for sex to travelling paedophiles, in a black market facilitated by secret online chat rooms.

This week on Dateline, reporter Stacey Dooley follows a team made up of local authorities and investigators from the United States, as they try to take down families who are illegally offering sexual acts with their children in return for money.

Many of these families are selling their children’s bodies as a response to impoverishment – almost a quarter of Filipinos are living in poverty, according to government statistics.

Our film crew embeds with a team who has spent two years deep undercover trying to catch a pair of sisters, who advertised sex with their own children to foreign paedophiles.

To infiltrate the families Mike*, a special agent for the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arm of US Customs, poses as a paedophile online. This case is one of 64 that his team is currently working on involving child sexual exploitation in the Philippines.

Talking via a chat room, he tells the sisters he’s hoping to meet with them and their children at a private location.

Investigators are aware of the sensitivities of this work – for many abused children, the rescue operation is often more traumatic than the abuse. Once their parents are arrested and taken from them, they will often enter a care system that doesn’t have the resources to properly treat their trauma.

In many cases they will never be able to return home

To gather sufficient evidence before organising a meet, investigators like Mike need to extract explicit details about what is being offered. He asks the sisters how old the children are, and what he can do with them.

“If you like 10 and 12. Play them…To make u happy,” one of the mothers writes to him.

“Now we have a woman who is offering to sell 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12-year-old children to a foreigner for US$18,” Mike tells Stacey Dooley.

In another case Mike is working on, a mother with 5 young children is so desperate to meet with him she calls him 157 times in a seven hour period.

Some mothers are not only offering their children to paedophiles for physical abuse, but are carrying out the abuse themselves and streaming it live online. It’s estimated there are 750,000 sexual predators online every minute making the black market a lucrative option for these mums, some filming and directing up to 40 shows a week.

Mike says paedophiles overseas will watch a live stream of a child and their parent, paying money for them to perform certain acts.

“The way this works is they say, ‘I’m sending you $15, now do this to the kid’,” he says.

“So you have a monster in the United States or the UK or elsewhere, but he would normally have no access to a child in the Philippines. But now you put in the internet and a computer and a money transaction and now this guy’s causing the rape of a child in another country.

“Some of these guys ask for the most horrendous abuse of these kids.”

In one case, mentioned by Deputy Attaché Juan Bortfeld from HSI, children were made to “dig their own graves, just to cause that fear, and have people watch the fear in these kid’s eyes.”

Many young survivors of child exploitation will suffer from post-traumatic stress, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse. Experts believe children being abused often don’t realise the trauma they’re going through while it’s happening.

“[What] makes this whole activity so horrific is that you’re preying on children who don’t know,” says special agent Douglas McDonell from HSI.

“They don’t have the mental capacity to fully comprehend the situation that they’re in.”

*Not his real name.

If you are seeking support, you can reach out to any of these services:

  • Child Wise-National Child Abuse Prevention Helpline – 1800 99 10 99
  • Blue Knot Helpline – 1300 657 380
  • Child Abuse Prevention Service (CAPS) – 1800 688 009
  • Survivors & Mates Support Network – 1800 472 676

Watch the full story at the top of the page.

More

New technologies are worsening online child exploitation
Ease of access to technologies such as live streaming is increasing the production and spread of child exploitation material online.
The Philippines is the “global epicenter” of live-streamed child pornography
The Philippines has become the "global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse trade,” according to a new report.
Internet providers urged to tackle online child abuse
The UN children's agency is urging internet service providers to tackle the live-streaming of child sex in the Philippines.

Credits

Reporter: Stacey Dooley

Camera / Director / Producer: Joyce Trozzo

Archive Producer: Fran Rowlatt-McCormick

Field Producer: Gretchen Malaland

Associate Producer: Marta Jelec

Story Editor: Franco Bogino

Transcript

SPECIAL AGENT MIKE, ICE HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS:  Give me a second to mute it...

REPORTER:  OK, let’s go. Hello.

MIKE:  So I just started a recording so I can document this as evidence in case we can identify the woman.

Mike is an undercover investigator working for Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI. He's travelled to the Philippines and has eight days to arrest several women selling their children for sex.

REPORTER: So tell me a little bit about this particular woman.

MIKE:  She has five children, they look like they're between five and 10 years old.

REPORTER:  Are they her children?

MIKE:  She tells me they're her children.

Mike has infiltrated a group of online paedophiles, and the mothers believe he is one of them.

MIKE:  She knows I'm coming to the Philippines and she wants to meet with me so I can have sex with her kids.

REPORTER:  She's said that?

MIKE:  Yep, so now I say, "what can I do with them?"

REPORTER:   Oh my God - "you can play with them if that makes you happy."

MIKE:  But I want her to specify exactly what that means. We're not playing checkers here - if I meet her I'm paying to have sex with her kids or to sexually abuse them.

REPORTER:  So you've just asked her, "what will they do to me?"

MIKE:  So she says "jerking, kissing, sucking."

REPORTER:  And then you've put "my dick?" She's put "yes."

MIKE:  Right, so now we have a woman who is offering to sell seven, eight, nine, 10 and 12-year-old children to a foreigner for $18.

As well as offering their kids for hands-on abuse, mothers like this can stream up to 40 shows a week. Convicted paedophiles have been shown to have spent tens of thousands of pounds directing these live shows.

REPORTER:  So this is live chat right now.

MIKE:  Uh huh.

REPORTER: "Can you send me $50? "Me and play baby, licking pussy, sucking tits."

The mothers send Mike many recordings of previous shows to convince him to part with his money. So he sees the abuse in graphic detail. For Mike, it's vital that he can rescue all the children they are abusing.

REPORTER:  It's so tricky though, right? Because you need to come across like you want to abuse these kids, but you're also ultimately are trying to protect them, so it's a really fine line?

MIKE:  Right. We obviously never ask them to do any type of abuse or anything remotely close to that, so it's challenging to get the evidence that you need.

Through his undercover work, Mike has learned just how dark the abuse can be.

MIKE:  These cases are different because there's something about the fact that they are directing a live movie, and the way this works is they say "I'm sending you $15 now do this to the kid." So you have a monster in US or UK or elsewhere, who normally would have no access to child in Philippines, but now you've put in the internet and a computer, and a money transaction, and now this guy's causing the rape of a child, in another country. I mean some of these guys ask for the most horrendous abuse of these kids.

The Philippines is the number one global source for webcam child abuse, and one of the major contributing factors is poverty. A quarter of the population are struggling even to feed themselves. You don't know what you would do if you were starving. You can never condone child abuse in anyway shape or form, but what I'm saying is sometimes I believe it's circumstantial. So the mothers are torn, they know it's wrong but they feel in their minds, like it's their only option. HSI is responsible for investigating cross border crimes involving US citizens. For the team stationed here, cyber sex cases make up 70% of their work.

DEPUTY ATTACHE JUAN BORTFELD, ICE HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS:  We're going to pull into the fourth level parking lot, and then we'll brief there, so I don't know if they're en route yet, but it's in play already.

Juan will co-ordinate a meeting between Mike and two sisters who are offering to sell their kids. It's taken two years to locate them, and today they'll come face to face for the first time.

JUAN BORTFELD:  The biggest thing is to get them to set foot outside the house. They've been operating in the privacy of their own home, not exposed at all, and this is the first time that they going to step out and meet somebody new, so they're taking a heck of a risk and they know that. So until they show up it’s anybody's guess as to what's going to happen.

The sisters have chosen to meet at a local shopping mall.

MIKE:  The two sisters operate in different places with different kids, so if we went after one of these sisters, the other one's gonna disappear, and you lose these other kids. So the plan is to get to know them, so they trust me, and so the next day hopefully they return to someplace I've rented and bring the kids, get them all in the same place so we can rescue all of them.

SPECIAL AGENT DOUGLAS MCDONELL, ICE HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS:  Terrific, OK.

Douglas is the first to get an update.

DOUGLAS MCDONELL: Just want to share a picture with you.

REPORTER: Oh please do.

DOUGLAS MCDONELL:  Somebody snapped it, one of the guys out there watching, that's in the restaurant.

REPORTER: So they turned up.

The sisters have chosen to bring some of their kids.

MIKE:  They came up to me and they all hugged me, but I thought it was a bit forced, like they were told to do it. You could tell that they were uncomfortable, and there was no secret why we're meeting.

REPORTER:  Doug, do you think the kids truly understand, do they realise that they're being abused, or is that their normality because they've never known any different?

MIKE:  It's the whole point that makes this whole activity so horrific, is that you're preying on children who don't know, they don't have the mental capacity to fully comprehend the situation that they're in.

REPORTER: It's a really complicated situation, and your emotions are sort of back and forth. Part of you, you're delighted when you hear the operation is going well, because you know ultimately that means these kids are going to be safer in the future. But then you have to remind yourself that there are no real winners here, because these kids are going to have their mum taken away from them. So it's very sad, it's very grey, it's not black and white.

MIKE:  Alright, OK bye. He talked with one of the sisters a little bit about price, and he gave money for transportation for tomorrow, and that's fine with them, and they set the time at noon, so...

With the success of today's meeting, the arrest and rescue operation is set for tomorrow. For Mike it can't come soon enough.

REPORTER: This is the first time you're meeting them in reality, but you've already seen them being abused.

MIKE:  Yeah, these kids are in a horrendous place and I've tried to approach it, I've two kids myself...

REPORTER: How old are your kids?

MIKE:  14 and six.

REPORTER: So similar ages really to a lot of the girls that you see, and you're offered?

MIKE:  Right.

REPORTER: And you've had to be patient to allow this to play, out so you can get them, ultimately. I can't imagine it.

MIKE:  I regret it wasn't much sooner, that's what's tough about these cases.

REPORTER: Why does it take so long?

MIKE:  There are a lot of obstacles, investigating these from another country is difficult, you have different laws, on top of the fact that when you start meeting these people you don't know where they are, other than the fact that they're in the Philippines, where there are 7,000 islands.

If they turn up, the plan is the sisters will be busted at a private villa, just outside the city.

JUAN BORTFELD: We're trying to curtail this by making the supply end, like these two women, putting them in jail, making them more paranoid. If we can get away with making them as paranoid as possible, to where they stop doing it, we shut down the supply end, and also we are preventing our citizens from coming here and engaging in this type of activity.

The US team here are currently working 64 cases involving child sexual exploitation. At certain times of the year, they're especially swamped.

JUAN BORTFELD:  We have seen a spike at the end of March, starting April, there's more registered sex offenders attempting to enter the Philippines, this correlates with the school vacation. We're investigating another subject right now that's talking to his girlfriend and asking her to participate in the rape of a ten-month-old baby. In one instance, the girls were made to dig their own graves, just to cause that fear, and have people watch the fear in these kids' eyes.

MIKE:  I'll try and meet them upfront, I will show them round, and I suspect the kids are going to gravitate very quickly towards the pool, and I'll say "I don't want to give you money outside."

HSI have been joined by agents from the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation. They will arrest the sisters. Our hidden cameras will give everyone eyes and ears on the takedown.

MIKE:  At the end of today, you're glad that you got these people, and these kids aren't being abused anymore, and continue this lifestyle. But we are all aware that this is going to be a difficult day for these kids, I'll be the bad guy for sure.

It's critical both sisters show up with all their children. If only one is arrested, the other will go dark and her children could be lost forever.

MIKE:  OK, I just wanted to talk in here, not near them, so could you tell me which ones I can do what with?

MOTHER:  Remember we talk about "Alice"?

MIKE:  Yeah, she can do what?

MOTHER:  Sex. Jane can do sex as well. Anne can do, but Katie can’t.

MIKE:  That’s okay. Ah, how much for, um, sex?

MOTHER:  Are you going to have them come here?

MIKE:  They can stay here. She seems a sweet girl.

OFFICERS:  Homeland security, you're under arrest!

The sisters looked stunned as the charges are read out. HSI have been waiting two years to bust them, but no-one is celebrating.

MIKE:  You know it's emotionally draining. Once they put me in handcuffs, my role is done at that point and that whole other part kind of takes over, basically, the kids.

13 children are being comforted by a team of social workers. Ten of the kids are related to the sisters. The youngest is a two-month-old baby. All the children will be taken to a secure shelter and be given emotional and psychological support. Many survivors of this type of abuse suffer from post-traumatic stress, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse. They are unlikely to ever go back to their homes. After operations of this intensity, Mike needs time to decompress. We catch up the following day.

MIKE:  Last night I just wanted to call my family, talk to my girls and tell them I love them, and that's it. Yesterday was a tough day, the little girl, the 9-year-old was asking what they were going to do today, and she said, "go swimming, and he's gonna eat," and she said, "what do I have to do?" So I know even in the moment when these kids are having fun, and they're all smiles and they jump in the pool, this little kid knows at some point I'm leaving this pool and going upstairs with that guy. Four of the girls they said I could have sex with, I could do whatever I want with those ones, they had even offered to leave the kids there with me and just go home for the night. Then at the end I had mentioned the little boy, 'cause I knew she'd abused him, I'd seen the videos of it. She would tell me she would abuse him when he's sleeping.

REPORTER:  When he's sleeping?

MIKE:  Yeah.

REPORTER: For her pleasure?

MIKE:  Mm-hmm. And then I wanted them to admit that they personally abused that kid, and they joked, you know, and laughed about it.

During their arrest, the sisters showed no remorse or emotion. Having spent some time behind bars, I wonder if that's changed. Both have agreed to speak to me - they still don't know Mike is an undercover agent.

REPORTER: So, can you explain to me what your relationship what your relationship is with the American?

MOTHER:  Friend, only friend. A friend she has on Facebook.

MOTHER 2 (Translation): We didn’t know this would happen, all we knew is that we were going swimming.

REPORTER: Did either of you have a conversation with the American, where you told him that he could abuse the children?

MOTHER 2 (Translation): They were kids, they initiated it themselves, many youngsters do things they shouldn’t. There are things the parents can’t control. But I’m not selling. We’re not selling.

REPORTER:  Did you ever send this American pictures of your children being abused or taking part in sexual acts?

MOTHER: No.

REPORTER:  I know that's not true, and you know that's not true. Why do you abuse your own children?

MOTHER 2 (Translation): We didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t do anything to my children. Sorry we ended up like this.

REPORTER:  Are you sorry for the pain that you have put them through, or are you sorry that you got caught?

MOTHER 2 (Translation): I don’t know what is going to happen to our children there. If there were no foreigners like him…there might not be any Filipinos who are duped.                                                                                                        

Both face charges of child trafficking, child abuse and child pornography, and could get 15 years to life. Sadly, competition for Mike's business is high. His next target is so desperate to meet, she's called him 157 times in seven hours.

REPORTER:  And she's got five kids between five and 10?

MIKE:  Yeah, they're not all hers, apparently, but that's what she's offering.

The team don't waste any time, and set up the bust.

MIKE:  She definitely seems anxious to meet me for sure.

Mike arranges to meet her and her cousin at a local market. If all goes well, they'll bring the kids to a hotel in downtown Manila this same afternoon.

JUAN BORTFELD:  Hello, hey. NBI's pre-positioned already.

The mothers are on their way, with a seven- and 13-year-old. They've told Mike he can do whatever he wants.

JUAN BORTFELD:  White shirt, khaki pants, pink shirt.

So the two suspects and kids are downstairs, the undercover agent is in the lift going down to meet them and bring them up with the children, go next door, and a slam of door is their signal.

WOMAN:  Wow.

MIKE:  Yeah.

REPORTER:  There's two children in the room.

MIKE:  I only have two 500s, so I'll give one to each of you.

WOMAN:  For me? Thank you.

MIKE:  One, two, three, four, 'cause I owe you eight. We'll go get some food... I'm going to lock the door.

REPORTER:  They've handed over the money and now it's time to go.

OFFICER:  NBI, hey hey, stop, NBI! NBI, hey hey, stop, NBI! We are arresting you for violating Republic Act 92018. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to choose a lawyer. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one for you.    

WOMAN (Translation): We aren’t together. You are hurting me. 

CHILD (Translation): We are not doing anything wrong.

OFFICER (Translation): We will just talk to your mummy.

CHILD (Translation): Mummy!

WOMAN (Translation):  Child, don’t let go of me, okay?  I beg you, look after my daughter. I beg you again.

REPORTER:   Why are you here?

MOTHER (Translation): I can’t, ma’am, I can’t.

REPORTER:  Why are you here with your children, and why are you taking money?

MOTHER: He said we will visit him because…I told him okay, because we are long-time friends on Facebook.  That’s all. Then I meet him on Market! Market! Just eating. Then he will give me 4000 because I said “I will buy milk for my kids, I will pay my electricity and for my food, because I have five kids.” I have nine-months-old baby.

REPORTER:  So why did you say to him that it was okay for him to abuse your children?

MOTHER:  I’m not abusing, not my children.

REPORTER:  Have you ever allowed strange foreign men to abuse your children in the past?

MOTHER:  No, ma’am, I can’t.

OFFICER:  Let’s go down.

MOTHER (Translation): Sir, I didn’t do anything wrong.

I'm told that for some children, the rescue operation is more traumatic than the abuse. Children like these will go into a care system that's already bursting at the seams. Some will face stigma and discrimination and could experience violence from caregivers and other children. Psychologists in the Philippines now believe the long-term goal should be reuniting and supporting families instead of separating them for life.

We cannot begin to imagine the pain that these kids are put through. And for all the guys that pay to see these shows, and all of these individuals that fly over to places like the Philippines to abuse these kids, this is the reality. It's not sexy, it's not fun. You've broken a family. These kids are going to have to live in a shelter, and mothers are going to be sat in prison for a long time. So that's your fantasy.

These two busts have led to the identification of several of the mother’s customers. HSI are now investigating them. Mike has also gathered intel on perpetrators in over 80 countries, with most coming from the US and the UK.

MIKE:  It's very easy to hide your anonymity when you're doing these crimes, when you think about it - all you're doing is sending a payment, you're watching a video that gets deleted, it's someone in a foreign country, who's going to investigate you? Who's going to find you? Well, what I can tell you is, that there's a long list of people that I have, that should be very nervous if they're watching this documentary.

reporter
stacey dooley

camera/director/producer
joyce trozzo

field producer
gretchen malaland

associate producer
marta jelec

story editor
franco bogino

editors
micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

20th June 2017