No breaks for child-porn criminals

By Sen. Rob Portman

May 3, 2014

Child pornography is a horrific crime that forever robs children of their innocence. Over the years, Congress has enacted laws both to criminally punish people who possess or trade in child pornography and to require criminals to fully compensate their victims for the damage they have caused.

A Supreme Court decision last week, however, severely undermined these laws, making it more difficult — if not impossible — for victims to recover restitution from the convicted criminals who continue to harm them.

Restitution is critical for victims of child pornography, many of whom require expensive ongoing psychological treatment for emotional scars that never truly heal. One of those victims is a woman who goes by the pseudonym “Amy.” When Amy was four years old, her uncle began to sexually abuse her, and he photographed the abuse. This abuse continued for five years, until her uncle was finally arrested.

But Amy fought back — again. Using a provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that requires mandatory restitution, Amy began to pursue restitution against those convicted of possessing images of her abuse. This provision made use of the longstanding principle of joint and several liability.

According to this doctrine, when a group of people harms someone, each member of the group is responsible for the full restitution owed to the victim. If one of the abusers feels he has paid too much, he can take it up in court in a lawsuit against his fellow abusers. Our main concern is taking care of the victim’s needs.

That was the intent of the restitution clause passed by Congress. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that Congress had not spoken clearly enough and held that these criminals are not individually responsible for fully compensating their victims. As the dissenting justices recognized, this could mean that Amy “will be stuck litigating for years to come” if she is ever to fully recover from those who have harmed her.

There will be some debate over whether the Court correctly interpreted VAWA. But for Amy and thousands of others who have suffered because of child pornography, that debate doesn’t really matter. They want to know if Congress can fix this. Fortunately, we can.

In my time in the Senate, I have found that while Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on a lot of things, we can come together to protect vulnerable children who have been abused or exploited.

I’ve seen it firsthand as co-chair with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) of the Human Trafficking Caucus, as lead sponsor of an amendment included in VAWA to secure housing for children who are victims of sexual exploitation, and through my work on bipartisan efforts to give kids who are abused or traumatized the help they need to recover and start the life they deserve.

In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to make it unmistakably clear that those who create or possess child pornography cannot hide from their victims by blaming others for the harm they have done.

Amy will never fully recover from what was done to her when she was a child, and she can never regain the innocence that was stolen from her. But we can ensure that those who continue to victimize her today will be the ones who pay for the counseling and the lost wages she will suffer for the rest of her life. That is the cost of the crime they have committed, and the law of the land should demand that it is paid in full.