From the age of 11, the girl was allegedly forced to pose and perform sexual acts so her mother could take photographs and send them to a man in the US.
Three years later, the teenager, who is now 14, and her 11-year-old brother are in a place of safety following a dramatic international manhunt that started in North Carolina in the US and ended in the small town of Vredenburg in the Western Cape.
When the SAPS’s Family Violence and Child Protection Unit raided the premises in Vredenburg last week they were shocked by what they found.
It was the first time, they said, that they had arrested a mother allegedly involved in the sexual assault of her child.
This week the girl’s parents, who can’t be named because of the sexual nature of the crime and her age, will be back in court as they apply for bail.
The couple are each facing 10 charges relating to rape, sexual assault and the manufacture of child pornography.
The search for the girl started when Lieutenant-Colonel Heila Niemand, the commander of the Gauteng Family Violence and Child Protection Unit, was approached by members of the Homeland Security Department based at the US embassy in Pretoria.
They informed her that a man had been arrested in Catawba County in North Carolina with child pornography on his cellphone. When the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation forensically investigated the phone they discovered he had paid for the pictures. They were able to track the payments to South Africa. “He was using wire transfers to send the money,” said Niemand.
The suspect, she said, was allegedly using Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate with the girl and her family.
US authorities, she said, initially tracked the money transfers to an address in Port Elizabeth, but when police visited the premises they discovered the family had moved. The hunt then moved to Gauteng but again police discovered the family were no longer living there.
Then, the police got lucky, Niemand said. Detectives obtained an address in Vredenburg.
On February 14, the police swooped and found the family.
Niemand was able to piece together how the alleged crime unfolded. “He first befriended the child sending her messages. Then the mother jumped on to the bandwagon wanting payment. He would send messages asking for specific positions he wanted the girl to be photographed in.”
Police believe the mother had been allegedly sending photographs of her daughter for three years. “They told us they did it because they are unemployed and needed to buy food.”
The girl, Niemand added, had believed the man in the US was planning to marry her.
Police were surprised that the mother had no prior criminal record related to child pornography.
This investigation involved the SAPS, the FBI and Belgian police.