It began with a mother and her teenage daughter in St. Louis.
Then, a family in Seattle and their courageous lawyer who took up the fight.
After similar trials in different states over several years, and finally with
the help of the U.S. Senate, the second-largest classified advertising website,
Backpage.com, was forced to stop
facilitating child sex trafficking.
The new documentary, “I Am Jane Doe,” tracks the myriad lawsuits
launched by trafficking victims, known as Jane Does, which forced Backpage to
shut down its adult services section last month. In the midst of the courtroom
dramas, the film stays true to the heart of the story — the trafficking victims and their families.
The documentary, which premiered Feb. 10, is being shown at
select theaters across the country, including AMC Hoffman Center 22 in
Alexandria. It was directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by actress Jessica
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported
that in 2015 about one in five of the hundreds of thousands of runaways were trafficking
victims. Nearly two-thirds are trafficked online — the vast majority on Backpage.
In 2010, a 13-year-old girl from St. Louis, known in the film as
M.A., was one of those children. Months after the teen went missing, her mother
found her in an ad on Backpage. With the help of the police, M.A. returned
home, though with great psychological wounds and drug problems. The teen’s trafficker
was prosecuted, but her mother wanted all those involved with her daughter’s
exploitation to be held accountable, including Backpage.
In both the initial trial and the appeal, M.A. and her mother
lost due to the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that a website
cannot be held responsible for what a third party posts. Other lawsuits around
the country faced the same defeat.
Through often tearful interviews with the girls and their
parents, “I Am Jane Doe” shows the horror of sex trafficking. But it also spends
some time on those who traffic children and pay for sex. A chilling former pimp
shared how he used to seduce and control vulnerable girls. A man who bought sex
online compared ordering a prostitute (often a sex trafficking victim) to
ordering something on Amazon. Now repentant, he called pornography a “gateway
drug” to buying sex. He said that when his family found out about his secret
life, his daughter was so repulsed she threw up.
The film then moves to Seattle, where a 15-year-old girl called
J.S. ran away from home. Her father kept searching for her, and eventually
turned to drinking. Her mother turned to prayer and advocacy. The police later
found J.S. in a Backpage ad, and after a
sting operation, returned her home. Even with their daughter back, J.S.’s
mother said , “We will never be the family we were.”
J.S. and her family also sued Backpage, and the case went to the
Washington State Supreme Court. Their team of lawyers won after proving that
instead of policing the ads for signs of human trafficking, the site actually
sanitized the language used while doing little to prevent trafficking. It was
this direct involvement that troubled the Senate as well.
In April 2015, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations, led by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., began
to investigate Backpage. The company’s CEO Carl Ferrer refused to attend the hearing and
the Senate found him in contempt, something that had not happened in more than
20 years. Through a federal order, they compelled Backpage to produce the
On the eve of another Senate hearing, Backpage took down its
adult section. It’s a promising ending to the troubling saga, but advocates for
trafficking victims remain wary. In the words of one mother, “Another Backpage
will come along, unless they fix the (Communications Decency Act).”