This was a disturbing but important episode about the power of child pornography to destroy lives, and the power of the law to help victims get restitution.
A little girl named Maddie totters on the brink of a 10-story apartment balcony; our detectives swoop in and save her from falling. Her parents aren’t home, leading the detectives to investigate a child neglect case. They discover that Maddie’s mother, Jenny, was a victim of child pornography herself. Jenny’s erratic behavior stems from her own traumatic childhood. As an eight-year-old, Jenny was videotaped having sex with her stepfather; the video was shared on the Internet thousands of times.
Instead of pressing charges against Jenny for leaving her child alone, the detectives help her collect damages from the men who downloaded pornographic images of her. But collecting from one man at a time is logistically difficult. The Violence Against Women Act allows Jenny to collect from a single rich porn viewer the entire $4 million she’s owed in damages. If he wants to sue the other offenders, he can.
What they got right:
There is an ongoing legal debate about how child-porn victims can collect damages from offenders who downloaded their images. The Supreme Court just heard arguments in January on this very issue.
In the real case of Paroline v. Amy Unknown, an eight-year-old girl named Amy was sexually abused by her uncle, who then posted the images online. Amy’s images were traded thousands of times among child pornographers. When Amy (at age 17) started receiving notices from the government about these cases, she hired a lawyer and started suing the offenders, one by one, for restitution. The Violence Against Women Act allows victims of child pornography to sue people who saw their images, and collect money damages including lost income, counseling, medical expenses, and attorney’s fees. Using VAWA, Amy has succeeded in collecting about $1.7 million from more than 170 men.
In January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case Amy brought against Donald Paroline. Paroline was caught with hundreds of images of child pornography, including two pictures of 8-year-old Amy. Amy sued him for the restitution due from all offenders who viewed her images; the Fifth Circuit upheld her claim. This is known as “joint and several liability,” and effectively forces the porn offender, rather than the victim, to collect from the other offenders.
But other courts have held that a single offender can only be held responsible for his own portion of the restitution. In an unusual move, a bipartisan group of Senatorsfiled a brief with the Supreme Court, in which they explicitly stated that they did mean to include this form of restitution in VAWA for victims like Amy. Hang tight to find out what the Supremes say.
Tonight’s episode also highlighted that child pornography isn’t a victimless crime. Each time an image is downloaded, the child is revictimized. I loved the courtroom scene where Jenny confronted the child porn offender (right after his daughter finished speaking on his behalf). It was very realistic and summarized the harrowing issues that cases like this present.
Many American judges feel that watching child porn is victimless crime. It’s not. The damages caused by this marketplace and all the actors in it are devastating. I wish every judge in America would watch this episode of SVU.
What they got wrong:
No way would Olivia bring Jenny to her own personal therapist. Detectives usually try to keep their personal and professional lives far apart. I’ve even known detectives and prosecutors who refuse to keep family photos on their desks for that reason.
What do you think, SVU fans? Should a single porn viewer be responsible for the damages caused by every other offender who views the images? Who should have the burden of collecting damages, the victim or the offender? And did Olivia and Cassidy break up or get back together? (I couldn’t tell.) Leave your comments!