As a child, Amy was repeatedly raped by her uncle, who was also recording the abuse. When she was 17 years old, she discovered that the images of her trauma had been shared with tens of thousands of offenders online. Every time these images were viewed was a repetition of her victimization and abuse. But in court, because of antiquated laws, Amy discovered that the only way she could obtain full restitution was to sue each and every one of the people who had viewed and/or downloaded the images. A very complicated and expensive process that would be difficult to follow through for any victim.
Amy’s case was not unusual. In the US, defendants convicted for possessing child sexual abuse images were deemed in-part responsible for the emotional distress suffered by the victim. But previous legal judgements on the matter split the responsibility for any harm caused across all those who possessed the image. In theory, given that a single image could be shared across millions of computers, this means that a single offender would only be required to provide a tiny fraction of restitution to the victim. In practice, because of ambiguity in determining an exact figure, this often meant that offenders were not financially culpable at all for their crimes.
But a new federal law, called the Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act, signed this week by the US President, seeks to resolve this thorny legal issue. Under the Act, which is named after three victims of online child sexual exploitation, every child victim will receive at least US$3,000 from every offender. Because the rate of restitution has been standardized, it will now be easier for courts to establish an amount for compensatory damages. The new law also gives child victims access to the images that the convicted criminals possessed.
This is a great step forward. For many years, ECPAT International along with our network have been advocating for governments to lower the barriers for child victims to access legal remedies. According to a study on the issue from 2017, the trauma is often so great for some children it isn’t even possible for them to engage with the criminal justice system and access justice. In these cases, children were too fragile or frightened to provide evidence, and cases against their exploiters often had to be withdrawn. The physical and mental scars of victims can last a life time and their suffering can be difficult to comprehend.
It is fantastic that that this act was signed into law, but it comes not a moment too soon. Unfortunately, there will be more Amy’s out there, but it is encouraging to see that the legal system is taking the right steps towards better supporting child victims of sexual exploitation and abuse.