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How victims of sex trafficking took down Backpage.com

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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 Chastain.

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 desired documents.

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).”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017