Legal Momentum Brings First-Ever State Court Civil Suit for Cyber-Sexual Abuse on Behalf of Ex-Marine As Marine Corps Online Scandal Erupts
Legal Momentum is at the forefront of protecting girls and women from online sex abuse. The Internet is the new frontier of sexual violence against girls and women, as we see in the exploding "Marines United" scandal. In February, Legal Momentum and pro bono partners Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, filed a lawsuit on behalf of H.H., a former U.S. Marine who was abused by her landlord. This is the first state court civil suit for acts of sextortion in the country, and will pave the way for other victims of cyber-sexual abuse to sue their abusers.
After two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over a five-year period, H.H. resettled in New York City, enrolled in college and was building a new life. Like many people who are starting out anew, and like many veterans transitioning to civilian life, H.H. fell behind on her rent. Rather than giving her time to repay the rent, or turning to legal avenues to collect the back rent, H.H.’s landlord resorted to threats and sexual abuse. To gain leverage over H.H., her landlord entered her apartment without her consent and stole intimate images of her from her private hard drive—one that was not even connected to the Internet! He threatened to release the images publicly online unless H.H. paid him. Fearing for her safety, and faced with public humiliation, H.H. (with the help of veterans’ resource center Angels for Warriors) turned to Legal Momentum for help. Legal Momentum immediately stepped into action and contacted H.H.’s local prosecutor. Within 24 hours, a sting operation was in place, which led to the landlord’s arrest.
Even though he pled guilty to grand larceny of the hard drive, the landlord was sentenced to only 15 days of community service, and was ordered to forfeit the money he extorted from H.H. That was not enough. As H.H. said, “He did more than harm the community, he sexually abused me.” H.H. and Legal Momentum realize that with just a few mouse clicks, images of H.H. can be plastered over the Internet, and that they can impact her ability to find work and housing, and to form new social relationships.
Legal Momentum and Orrick are also making sure that sextortion is prosecuted as a sex crime throughout the country. In California, for example, we have worked with the California District Attorneys Association and State Senator Connie Leyva to introduce a law that makes distributing or threatening to distribute sexual images a crime. The law would strengthen the tools available to law enforcement and prosecutors.
The scandal rocking the U.S. Marine Corps in recent days highlights the urgent need for strong legal measures against online sex abuse. Members of a secret Facebook group of 30,000 Marines shared photos of women, including female Marines—and harassed the women in them . Group members continued to post and comment while the scandal was unfolding, according to CNN, and have even threatened reporters.
ACTION! Download Legal Momentum’s report, “A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age,” and our free tip sheet on preventing cyber-sexual abuse.
Legal Momentum and Pro Bono Counsel David Boies File Suits for Nonprofit Clients and Trafficking Victims
On February 7, Legal Momentum and David Boies filed suit in Arizona and Florida against Backpage.com, a website that facilitates child sex trafficking. The lawsuits seek damages on behalf of a trafficking survivor and two service providers that provide care to trafficking victims. Service providers Florida Abolitionist, based in Orlando, and Sojourner Center, based in Phoenix, provide shelter, care, and support to trafficking victims, including individuals trafficked on Backpage. The suits have received attention from the national press, including NBC’s Nightly News, USA Today, Litigation Daily, Reuters, and the Miami Herald.The purpose of the lawsuits is to end the child rape that Backpage facilitates. According to a 2017 report issued by the U.S. Senate,
Backpage makes $9 million in profits each month from sex ads, many of which are for trafficking victims. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has stated that more than 70 percent of all child trafficking reports it receives are linked to Backpage. Florida Abolitionist said in a statement, “Florida is a hub of human trafficking, much of it on Backpage. The Florida Department of Children and Families reported that in 2015 alone, it received 1,892 reports of human trafficking. We are proud to be a part of this lawsuit because every day we see how much suffering Backpage causes.”
“I’m delighted the microscope has been focused on Backpage and the internet that has become an instrument for this modern-day slavery,” Florida State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said of the lawsuit.
Sojourner Center said that Backpage.com “Made millions of dollars in profits each year from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking, including of children.”
David Boies, Legal Momentum’s pro bono partner on these lawsuits, said, “The real heroes are the trafficking survivors who are courageously pursuing this. It’s a dramatic failing of our legal system that something so obviously terrible continues to flourish.” He has handled some of the most important public interest lawsuits in the nation, including successfully advocating for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time. Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover,” said Carol Robles-Román, Legal Momentum's President and CEO.
Employers Adopt Legal Momentum’s “DV-Free Zone” Model Policy
On January 31, Chicago Says No More, an organization that works to end domestic violence and sexual assault in Illinois, rolled out its new employer toolkit on domestic violence in the workplace at a breakfast attended by 25 CEOs. Legal Momentum’s model policy, “This Workplace Is a DV-Free Zone,” is the centerpiece of the toolkit. Legal Momentum Senior Fellow Maryann Gallagher participated in the event, where Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was the featured speaker.
Legal Momentum’s This Workplace Is a DV-Free Zone Model Workplace Policy is sorely needed, not only in Chicago, but around the country. According to the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, U.S. companies spend more than $8.3 billion annually on absenteeism, medical costs, and lost productivity related to domestic violence and sexual assault. By implementing Legal Momentum’s policies, workplaces will help valued employees, retain productivity, and save money.
ACTION! To implement Legal Momentum’s model policy in your workplace, or to download our workplace Bill of Rights poster, visit the Legal Momentum website or call Maryann Gallagher at 212-935-6625, ext. 153.
Legal Momentum Featured in N.Y.C. and D.C. Premieres of “I Am Jane Doe”
Opening Night in New York City
Despite a pelting snowstorm, Legal Momentum hosted a standing-room-only screening of the powerful new documentary film, “I Am Jane Doe,” on February 10. The film, directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio, chronicles the struggle of several teenage trafficking victims and their mothers to obtain justice from Backpage.com for the harm the girls suffered when they were advertised for sex on the site, and features Legal Momentum’s work.
A “talk-back” followed the screening, with the film’s co-producer Alex Sokolow (producer of “Toy Story”) and Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of anti-trafficking organization ECPAT-USA, as well as Legal Momentum’s Carol Robles-Román and Penny Venetis.
Premiere Screening in Washington, D.C.
The McCain Institute, Baker McKenzie, Ropes and Gray, and 50 Eggs Production hosted the Washington D.C. premiere of “I Am Jane Doe” on February 6. It was followed by a panel discussion with director Mary Mazzio and Senators Rob Portman, Claire McCaskill, John McCain, and Heidi Heitkamp. Legal Momentum’s Carol Robles-Román and Penny Venetis attended the screening and discussion. The courageous Jane Doe families spoke and thanked the Senators for their bipartisan leadership to end human sex trafficking on Backpage.com.
Legal Momentum Action Alert to Preserve Funding for Violence Against Women Act Programs
Legal Momentum has called for action to prevent funding cuts to crucial federal and community programs that reduce violence against women. According to numerous media outlets, the federal government plans to strip funding for programs administered by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence against Women (OVW), which implements the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This will impact organizations that provide vital services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and that depend on the funding. According to Lynn Hecht Schafran, who was deeply involved in the crafting and passing of the original VAWA in 1994, “It’s not too extreme to say that women will die.”
Legal Momentum sent an email blast to our supporters asking them to contact their congressional representatives to call on them to oppose any funding cuts. VAWA’s $480 million funding represents a miniscule one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. The programs supported by this funding have been proven effective in reducing violence against women and holding perpetrators accountable. These programs have saved taxpayers billions in averted social, medical, and justice system expenses. To eliminate these programs would be a major step backward both for women and for the nation as a whole.
On February 28, a bipartisan group of senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), along with Senators Dean Heller (R-NV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), sent a letter to the President, urging him to support the programs authorized by VAWA during the budget process.
As the letter states, “Since its enactment in 1994, VAWA has helped States and communities throughout the country make significant progress in meeting these goals, but there is still much work to be done. . . . We encourage this Administration to again partner with Congress to champion critical VAWA programs aimed at preventing abuse, improving the law enforcement response to violence against women and children, and supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence.”
ACTION! Please share Legal Momentum’s action alert with your social networks.
LM Advocates for Accurate Language in the Media
Legal Momentum has sought a meeting with The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and the editorial board to urge that stronger guidance for reporters on accurate language about domestic and sexual violence be included in The Times’s official in-house style guide. In reporting on the movie industry (“Uproar in France after Polanski Is Named Host of César Awards”) in January, The New York Times botched its language on sexual assault. The Times reported that “Mr. Polanski was convicted on charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977” (emphasis added). Lynn Hecht Schafran, Director of Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program, wrote to the Public Editor. Lynn pointed out that, “The New York Times appears not to understand the difference between an adult having consensual sex with an adult and an adult raping a child. . . . As I have so often written to The Times, the phrase ‘have sex with’ connotes mutuality and consent. This phrase is legally inapplicable to an adult having sexual contact with a minor because minors are legally incapable of consent.” Public Editor Liz Spayd responded, “I’m with Schafran on this one, for the reasons she states.”
The National Judicial Education Program’s model curriculum for all who speak and write about sexual violence is available free on our website. Raped or Seduced? How Language Shapes Our Response to Domestic and Sexual Violence was originally developed for judges, and has been presented successfully to multidisciplinary audiences, including attorneys, military personnel, health care professionals, probation officers, victim advocates, and law enforcement. Legal Momentum has presented the curriculum at conferences nationwide.
NJEP Presents Webinar for National Center for State Courts
On February 28, Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) presented a free one-hour webinar on Enhancing the Court’s Response to Adult Victim Sexual Assault Cases for the National Center for State Courts for the Violence Against Women Points of Contact in the state courts. The webinar highlighted the importance of judicial education on sexual violence for judges from all court types and a variety of educational programming approaches. Lynn Hecht Schafran, Director of NJEP, and state court representatives discussed the successful interactive strategies, and the resources on sexual violence, that are available from NJEP. These strategies, such as case studies and digital true/false responders, can be incorporated into varied court and judicial education program formats to promote discussion and interaction. The webinar participants included points of contacts from three states with which NJEP has worked previously: Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington State. A recorded version of the webinar will be available online soon.
Carol Robles-Román Speaks at Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force Freedom Rally
Florida ranks third among states in the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline—on average, one victim a week is being identified in Central Florida. On January 28, Carol Robles-Román was the keynote speaker at the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force’s Freedom Rally. The audience was shocked to learn the extent that human trafficking is being facilitated through the internet, and how easy websites make it for traffickers to sell children. She explained how Legal Momentum is taking bold legal action, working with trafficking survivor service provider Florida Abolitionist, against those who knowingly facilitate child trafficking online to make sure they are held accountable for their actions. (See article on page 1.)
The rally was a community-wide effort to address modern-day slavery and the exploitation of children. It is the largest anti-human trafficking awareness event in Central Florida. It is held in partnership with dozens of governmental and non-governmental organizations, fair trade businesses, abolitionists, advocates, artists and community leaders. Legal Momentum advocates for changes to current laws to better protect children from online trafficking.
Title IX at 45: Improving Education for Women and Girls
Celebrating Title IX Protections for Pregnant and Parenting Students
Legal Momentum Staff Attorneys Jennifer Becker and Caitlin McCartney were the lead authors of a chapter on the protections owed to Pregnant and Parenting Students, which is part of a new report, Title IX at 45, issued by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE). The report, which outlines the Title IX protections that ensure women and girls are not discriminated against, is issued every five years. This year is Title IX’s 45th anniversary. Each chapter in the new report is being rolled out separately to the public in order to highlight that topic. The first chapter, on Title IX and Athletics, was released in February. The Pregnant and Parenting Students chapter was released on March 9. The full report will be released in June.
Legal Momentum Joins #TackleDemand Anti-Trafficking Campaign
Legal Momentum joined more than 20 partner organizations in the #TackleDemand anti-trafficking campaign, which launched on Sunday, February 5, at Super Bowl LI. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) launched the new awareness campaign to target demand for sex trafficking at major sporting events. The #TackleDemand 365 social media campaign aims to help raise awareness and send the message that buying sex promotes sex trafficking. Legal Momentum’s President and CEO, Carol Robles-Román said, “While there is believed to be an increase in sex trafficking around major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the sad fact is that human trafficking is happening 365 days a year and throughout the United States.” The public is encouraged to participate by visiting the campaign website to learn the latest research and to share social media graphics with the hashtag #TackleDemand.
New Cosmetic Line’s Sales Support Women’s Rights
A new line of beauty products called “Beautiful Rights,” launched by industry veteran Kristin Leonard, promises to donate a portion of sales (not profits!) to several women’s rights organizations. Legal Momentum is honored to be chosen as one of the esteemed organizations that buyers can support. The organizations designated are Legal Momentum, Planned Parenthood, Emily's List, the ACLU, and Lambda Legal. Let’s hope sales are robust!
LEGAL MOMENTUM IN THE NEWS
Stories on Legal Momentum’s Lawsuits against Backpage.com
NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, BreakThru Radio, ALM Legal Reader, Sacramento Bee, Consumer Affairs, Miami Herald, WNYC Public Radio, Reuters, Bloomberg Businessweek
Stories on Potential VAWA Funding Cuts
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