There are between 60,000 to 100,000 children in the Philippines involved in prostitution rings, according to the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF). Worldwide, more than two million children are exploited in the sex trade.
Helping those children find hope and healing through the gospel are Jeremy and Sarah Hess who founded One Saved International, a nonprofit that provides aftercare and restoration to children rescued from sex trafficking.
Working together with IJM
The Hesses work in tandem with Washington D.C.-based International Justice Mission (IJM) to help shepherd kids out of sex trafficking. IJM is an international Christian nongovernmental organization that rescues children from sex trafficking that was founded by lawyer Gary Haugen in 1997.
One Saved, in turn, provides aftercare in a home dubbed Rahab's House for rescued children in an undisclosed location in the Philippines thanks to a small indigenous staff of home moms, security and a social worker. There, they receive food, shelter, security, trade skills, psychological and medical care and the transformation of their lives through Christ's Gospel.
"Right now we're only working in the Philippines and hope to be expanding to other countries, or possibility an aftercare home even in the U.S., meaning kids who have been trafficked here in the U.S.," said Sarah Hess, who is One Saved's treasurer.
"UNICEF recently named the Philippines the global epicenter for cyber sex trafficking of children. That's what the Philippines has turned to recently (cyber sex). It's become a really good place especially for parents and relatives to traffic their children online."
Why the Philippines?
The Philippines is a hotbed for child trafficking because of access to the Internet combined with widespread poverty in this Southeast Asia country.
One reason some parents willingly traffic their children are because eking out a living is difficult.
"The poverty is not like we see here in the U.S.," said Hess. "It's really extreme. There are truly thousands of people living under bridges with pieces of sheet metal they found as their roof. And so when we go there you can understand why trafficking is such a big problem."
Other main reasons for child sex trafficking in the Philippines, according to UNICEF, include low economic development, gender inequalities, limited employment opportunities, existence of and access to public infrastructure (roads, schools, health centers, etc) and sex tourism.
Trafficked victims are promised jobs such as domestic helpers or entertainers. Unaware of the dangers ahead, children often have their own aspirations of wanting to see the big cities, helping their siblings and family purchase needed supplies, or aspirations of traveling to Japan as "entertainers."
God had a plan
Hess said key to One Saved's aftercare home was working in tandem with IJB but neither she nor her dentist husband knew how to connect with the ministry.
But God a plan, she said.
Sarah Hess was working at the front desk at her husband's dentist practice. A patient was waiting and said hello to her.
"I didn't recognize him from Adam," recalled Hess. "He came up and said, 'I bet you don't remember me but when you were little, my wife and I went to a couple's Bible study that was led by your parents in your home. How are you doing?' I said I'm trying to start an aftercare home for children who have been trafficked but we have now way of knowing how to get started.
"He said, 'You won't believe this, but my brother is a psychologist who counsels all the field workers for International Justice Mission. And that's how we were able to fly out in 2012 and meet all the IJM workers there in the Philippines."
Some of the children who've received help from One Saved are returned to their parents if they were not the ones who trafficked their children. If their parents did, though, then the kids are put up for adoption, or stay with One Save or may go to a state-run orphanage, which clearly is not the best option, said Hess.
"There are kids sleeping on the floor and in the hallway (of the state-run orphanage)," said Hess. "The need for aftercare is extremely high in that area. That place is not a Christian place and it's overflowing and kids are not hearing the gospel we want our ministry to be focused on the gospel."
Changing hearts is key
What will make a lasting difference against child trafficking is when the Holy Spirit changes the heart and priorities of people, said Hess.
"God is just using the Protestant church to make His name great and set a fire for the people and really that's our only hope of combating child sex trafficking: people's hearts being changed because at the end of the day it's the condition of the heart," said Hess, who's been to the Philippines four times. "They're not willing to traffic their children anymore because they're living for Christ. If people aren't wiling to visit the brothels anymore because they're on fire for Christ, we wouldn't have the problem."