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August 30, 2014

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Where’s the justice for victims of child molestation?

Children whose molestations are posted online face an ongoing battle for safety - and restitution - in adulthood

The world of child pornography has its own stars. Their images and video footage are among the world's most downloaded — a ghastly fame that's turned childhood tragedy into a perpetual nightmare for victims who, now adults, live in a world where their abuse is always being downloaded.

The "Vicky series," for example, is a collection of still images and video footage of a pre-teen being raped and sexually assaulted by her father. It is widely considered to be among the most downloaded and traded child porn in the world.

"Vicky" was 10 when the abuse started. Today, she's in her 20s. In April, a former Nevada resident was charged with tracking Vicky down and stalking her online. Gregory Hoffman, 41, first asked Vicky to be his MySpace friend. When she refused, the harassment began.

In one message, Hoffman wrote: "I loved and adored those videos very much. He jus [sic] wanted to show the world how gorgeous u really were. Is that such a crime??... I want u to talk to me about everything going on in ur life now."

In another, he wrote: "I wanna make a new porno of u and me."

Beyond these excerpts, Hoffman's other messages aren't exactly fit for print. Hoffman also contacted her friends, sending them photographic montages of Vicky as a young child, performing sex acts.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children attempts to identify victims of child pornography. They reportedly spent years looking for Vicky, who was finally identified when she went on national TV in hopes of drawing attention to the her case, after her father fled the country. He's since been arrested, and Vicky now receives notifications every time someone is being prosecuted for possessing her images.

These notifications are frequent, and they make it difficult for the adult woman to leave the trauma of her childhood behind, according to Vicky's attorney, Carol Hepburn. Vicky has a hard time interacting with the public; she has flashbacks and panic attacks and nightmares. She looks out into a crowd, and wonders who recognizes her as the girl her father dressed in skimpy clothes, tied up with ropes, and fed dirty lines to say to the camera.

"There is always a haunting fear of not knowing," Hepburn says. "That person on the street may actually be a part her life as a closet pedophile."

For the past year, Vicky and her attorney have fought for restitution or damages from people convicted of possessing her image or video — arguing that each download is a re-victimization, diminishing her potential and causing psychological trauma that must be treated with more counseling and more lawyers. This is a novel argument, one that Vicky and another young known victim of child pornography have only just started advancing in court, with varied success. In some cases, restitution has been flatly denied. In others, the awards are tremendous. A Florida man convicted of possessing and trading Vicky's images was recently ordered to pay her almost $150,000.

Not everybody is certain this is fair or just. A February New York Times article cited the blog of a George Washington University professor who said demanding restitution in these cases "stretches personal accountability to the breaking point."

And controversy or not, whether Vicky or any child porn victim will ever collect the money is questionable. People in prison don't make much money, and any personal assets or funds a defendant has going into trial can be quickly consumed by attorneys.

Hoffman was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, and ordered to pay just over $150,000 in restitution, transferable to an account in Vicky's name. Of course, the Hoffman case is somewhat different — he not only had Vicky's images, he stalked her. How much this harassment figured into the restitution payment is unclear; federal prosecutors did not reply to the Weekly's request for comment.

Meanwhile, Hoffman has taken steps to appeal his charge from behind bars. Vicky and her attorney will doubtless follow the case, and every other one filed from here on out.

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