Warning: This story contains mature content and may not be suitable for all readers.
Child victim investigations in any abuse case - physical, mental or sexual - are some of the most emotionally draining within law enforcement. These cases are assaults on the human mind and heart of those behind the badge. As soon as this topic arises, most sane and normal people want to turn away, to shield themselves from these truths. I hope you do not. Within this weeks segment, I am focusing on the horrors of sexual exploitation cases, which also are the most rewarding when resolved and the children are finally safe. I have investigated hundreds of these cases going back over 30 years.
During my early cases, the youth and innocence of these children mirrored that of my own at the time and catapulted my human element to the forefront. Having investigated these from beginning to final court disposition has given me a special insight to the horrors experienced by the victims and the following criminal justice process that follows. Last week I wrote to you about my experiences in a very early case. This segment goes beyond the criminal act of the abductions and sexual abuses perpetrated upon the child.
What this did not prepare me for however was the challenges and opposition faced by those attempting to shut down the actual marketing and advertisements for the sale of underage girls for sex. This seems on the surface to be a “no-brainer”. Advertisements offering underage girls for sex = WRONG! It’s that simple, right?
Well... not so it appears. While I was aware of the case against Backpage in “Jane Doe v. Backpage.com”, I was not aware of the opposition by our own government and archaic internet related misinterpreted laws.
Back in May, I had the honor of being invited to a screening and speaker panel for the independent film, “I AM JANE DOE”. This is a documentary about the courageous girls and their mothers who brought the case against Backpage.com to the courts.
The movie highlights the legal, political and social battles that several American mothers are waging on behalf of their teenage daughters who were victims of sex trafficking through classified ads hosted by “Backpage.com”. Backpage.com is a classified advertising website formerly owned by the Village Voice, which is a nationally circulated publication, headquartered in Arizona. The young girls whose stories were chronicled were either physical abducted or seduced by older men into situations that led to their abduction.
“Behind the Badge” is brought to you in part by the Spooner Police Foundation.
This is a gut wrenchingly sad and frustrating story, yet I was awe inspired by the victim’s strength and perseverance. Several of the victims and their parents were actually
present for the screening and took part in the Q&A panel following. I don’t know if I would have had the strength myself to do this and I applaud and admire those that did.
The movie documents the true struggles and obstacles the mothers and their daughters experienced as they fight against not only Backpage, but believe it or not; judges, corporations, special interest groups and an outdated internet freedom law that has been interpreted by federal judges - incorrectly in my opinion - to protect websites from responsibility for hosting ads that sell underage girls for sex. There was even a 2 year U.S. Senate investigation into Backpage which still had not resolved this, and even more recently this case was referred to the United States Supreme Court, who refused to hear it.
Neither this segment nor even a book has the space required to adequately describe the true horrors these innocent young victims experienced during this time or the emotional, mental and physical trauma and scars since. Let me summarize their ordeal by simply saying they were ripped from their families and sold for sex up to 20 times a day, 365 days a year while being forced into heavy drug use.
These children were drugged, abused and sold for sex! This mere fact alone is more than enough to outrage the normal decent human being. But what these mothers had to fight and are still fighting; the legal and social opponents that protect those that host the classified ads in which these transactions are made is completely unacceptable in our society of ethics, morals, and laws.
Backpage owners hid under the cover of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that Congress passed in 1996 to protect Internet companies from liability for content posted on their sites by other parties. While the law itself is understandable and necessary, what is not understandable or acceptable is that in this clear cut case of illegal activity, this laws interpretation and its application are being used to protect a company, and its owners that are selling our children for sex!
If you scale this down to a simple everyday example; say I own a wood framed cork bulletin board at your local store. The public uses it to post flyers or items and services for sale. Now if someone is selling something stolen or offers an illegal product or service, should I the owner of the actual cork board that the flyer was posted on, be held responsible? I think most would agree I should not.
Where my example above differs from the real world case in Jane Doe v. Backpage is that evidence has been shown that Backpage was actually coaching their customers how to word advertisements in order to circumvent decency and other laws, as well as not becoming the focus of an investigation by law enforcement agencies. The case accuses that they did this knowingly and willfully and received their cut of the underage sex trade in the form of advertising revenue. Morals, ethics, and decency does indeed have a price, and guess what? These children paid it!
Now back to my example in which an illegal ad was placed on my board without my knowledge. Let's say this time, however, I instead coach the seller of the illegal service or product ahead of time on how to word the ad so as not to alert the authorities and to circumvent existing laws. Now, who thinks I should not be held responsible? Probably no one, myself included.
I began working child exploitation cases as a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) prior to the internet. I am humbled and honored that I have been involved in these investigations at all levels of law enforcement; local, county, state and federal, since the mid-1980's. That's over 30 years. GOD has blessed me to be part of the effort to end this evil.
I am also disgusted and frustrated that within these 30 years, these cases have no signs letting up. The government and the letter of the law with its misinterpretations and misapplications have been part of the problem.
When I started these investigations, my daughter was a small child, every case I worked, no matter how emotionally draining, was in my mind and heart was "protecting my daughter" and I just dealt with it, compartmentalizing my feelings as police officers often do.
Now with my daughter and sons in their 30’s, I'm “protecting my Granddaughters”. My great fear is that in another 30 years if I live that long, is that I will still need to be here in a wheel chair if required, to "protect my Great-Granddaughters”. This is where the frustration kicks in.
As a police officer, I tend to see the world as black and white, good and evil. The legal arguments and games played by Backpage and even some of our legislators feel like an attempt to color this as gray and are unacceptable and should not be tolerated by any society. This case is still ongoing and Backpage is still in operation to this day.
The movie and its topic are hard to watch and talk about. The urge to turn away from this is very strong and understandable. However as hard and emotional as it is, it’s harder for the police who must investigate. Yet these pale in comparison to what the victims and their families have endured.
About the Author: Al Hobbs is a Law Enforcement Correspondent for DrydenWire and writes on a wide-range of topics on Law Enforcement but focuses mostly on the human element of being a cop in his weekly segment titled: "Behind The Badge". Al brings a unique writing style that allows him to connect with his readers. You can read his introduction to DrydenWire here.
Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.