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This article was published 20/5/2017 (1866 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The letters started arriving at the sisters' house long after the photos were taken. This was after the events that shattered their young world — after the exploitation, the first wave of arrests, the convictions.
When the girls were young, their mother hid the letters away. Only Lucy, the eldest, knew what they contained.
"Don't ever tell your sisters about these letters," her mother told her, once. "It will break them."
In the United States, crime victims are notified when police make an arrest in their cases. For some, it happens once or twice. For victims of child pornography, notifications can arrive dozens or hundreds of times.
Those letters, Lucy says, sent the sisters on a journey that has carried them from their home on the U.S. West Coast into a trailblazing advocacy.
So long as the letters piled up, unrelenting, it was as if their abuser's camera was still clicking.
"I feel like it never ended," Lucy says. "That's why we decided to do something about it."
As she says this, her gaze is firm and level. She is in Winnipeg, in a cosy and windowless room at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Her younger sisters, Odette and Rosemary, nod firmly. They are in this together.
These are not their real names. They chose them, and wear them like a cloak of words beloved or admired. For young women once so cruelly exposed, claiming the protection of pseudonyms is one way of reclaiming power.
Lucy took her name from the heroine of the Chronicles of Narnia, brave Lucy who travelled through a wardrobe and into an adventure. Rosemary's inspiration was simple: she loves to cook.
And Odette, the middle sister, chose her pseudonym after her favourite princess, the protagonist of animated movies based on the Swan Lake ballet. "She's very vocal," Odette says. "She was just empowering to me."
In a few hours, the sisters will speak to more than 400 police officers and child advocates from across North America at the Missing and Exploited Children Conference at the Fort Garry Hotel.
Once, they bore their pain nearly alone. Here they will be stars. The hotel's ballroom will fall silent when they talk. The sisters are no longer voiceless. People are listening.
By speaking up, the sisters hope, they can help drive change on both sides of the border. Their voices, they believe, hold the key to a new way forward, one that leads to more justice for child-porn victims.
They were children when their primary abuser, a family member, was arrested. He was popular and charismatic; that was his cover, as he cultivated friendships with men who he invited to exploit the girls.
There were so many pictures. Their abuser traded them and spread them all over the world.
At the time, the turn of the century, the Internet was still a relatively new phenomenon. Authorities were only just catching up with the ways offenders spread child porn digitally, the underground networks of trade.
When police finally discovered and arrested the sisters' abusers, it was a landmark case.
Odette was the only sister to testify when one of their abusers went to trial. She was still a child, not yet in her teens. She didn't realize that once she was in court, she would have to look at the man who harmed her.
Before she walked into the courtroom, a counsellor pressed stones into her hand, so that she could focus on them instead of the offender. She looked at her abuser once, because she had to look in order to identify him.
It was the first time she'd seen him in three years. He smirked at her, and made funny faces.
Odette stared at the rocks in her hand. They were cool and smooth, with black and grey whorls. She told the court that what he'd done to her was wrong, even though, she thought, he already knew. He just didn't care.
The man was convicted. He went to prison, and that's where he'll stay for a long, long time.
Were it a different crime, that's where the first chapter of the story — the search for justice — might have ended. But for Lucy, Odette and Rosemary, the journey through justice, and for accountability, was only just beginning.
Because the letters started coming when the sisters were still children. They piled up in bins. Each one noted the name of a new accused, someone else who had been arrested with photos of the girls in their possession.
Time passed: a year, five years, a decade. The girls grew into bright but hurting young women, and the letters kept coming. On average, their mom says, they received eight letters every week, one or two every day.
"It was just like, defeating," Lucy says. "You just felt sick. You felt hopeless."
When they were old enough, the sisters did what curious young women do: they started Googling. When a letter arrived, they searched the name of the accused. They found addresses, Facebook pages, phone numbers.
They saw doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers. They saw curated flashes of normal-looking lives, held by normal-looking men. It was as if they could scrape away that veneer and see the secrets those men held within.
When people leer at images of children being abused, do they think about that? Do they ever think that one day, those children are going to be looking at them, too? Do they ever stop to think what those children might see?
"I always think about that," Rosemary says. "They don't, because that's why they're doing it. They don't care."
Lucy nods in agreement; that dehumanization, she thinks, enables it. "People don't think, that's someone's daughter, that's someone out there trying to make it," she says. "They just use it for their sole pleasure."
So their images kept spreading, and people kept looking and letters about arrests kept piling up. Three years ago, it was as if something snapped inside the sisters: together, they decided enough was enough.
It was time to fight back.
In 2014, an email arrived in Carol Hepburn's inbox. It was Rosemary who decided to reach out; she'd read about another case where Hepburn, a Seattle lawyer, had helped a victim claim restitution from a child-porn offender.
At the time, Odette says, the sisters were "all in very dark places." For her, that manifested as total detachment from her childhood; she boxed off the pain in her mind. She struggled with her memory; she wanted to forget.
But Rosemary wanted to try. Although she is the least talkative of the three sisters, something in her is made of steely stuff; when she does speak up, she can be ferocious. And at that time in 2014, she was hungry for justice.
After a flurry of discussion, the sisters agreed to contact Hepburn. Soon, the lawyer visited them at their home. They talked about what they wanted to accomplish, what they hoped and expected from the process.
It was simple: they wanted to take back control. They wanted to have their voices heard when offenders were arrested and sentenced. Above all, they wanted to do something to help other victims.
By then, Hepburn was well-known in the United States for her work with child-porn victims. It began in late 2008, when a man contacted her for help; his stepdaughter was the subject of videos in the Internet's darkest places.
He wanted to know if there was something out there, some legal remedy. Surely, he thought, there was something they could do with the letters, some way to hold offenders accountable for the girl's pain.
Hepburn, a former prosecutor now in private practice, immersed herself in that question. She came back nearly empty-handed: there were statues allowing child-porn victims to claim restitution, but they had gathered dust.
She met James Marsh, a New York lawyer working on the same issue. Soon, the two were seeing clients individually, but collaborating on finding a way to quantify the pain survivors felt.
To say that was easier said than done is to understate the obvious. If someone steals a television, an offender might be ordered to pay the victim the cost of replacing it. But what should be the compensation for victims of child porn, whose injuries are complex and life-changing and linger long after the crime itself?
"It was a question of inventing the wheel," Hepburn says, chatting in a sunny alcove at the Fort Garry. "We needed to find out what kinds of injuries are unique to these types of victims?"
In 2013, the New York Times ran a long feature on the work Marsh and Hepburn were doing. The story focused on some of their clients who had won restitution from offenders; one had won 150 orders totalling US$1.6 million.
A forensic psychologist, Joyanna Silberg, described the challenge that child-porn survivors face in healing. Usually, she said, therapists working with abused children emphasize the line between past and present.
"The idea is to contain the harm: it happened then, and it’s not happening anymore," Silberg told the New York Times. "But how do you do that when these images are still out there?"
The trauma never really ends. When someone distributes images of child abuse — images of a child's humiliation and fear — for someone else's twisted sexual consumption, it tears the scabs off again and again. The pain accompanying that knowledge can be crippling.
Victims often live in fear of being recognized. In public, they are gripped by anxiety, wondering if the next person on the bus or at the grocery store has seen them being abused. Many struggle to work as the anxiety worsens.
"The fear stems from the anonymity of the crime," Hepburn says. "Your pictures are being traded around, and you don't know who's looking at them... it could be your doctor, or lawyer. Even the police you go to for help."
Odette, Rosemary and Lucy felt that, too. They are bright young women, but struggled in school; for Rosemary, lights and camera flashes triggered horrible memories of the abuse. All three have battled depression and suicidal thoughts.
Lucy worried about her younger sisters as she saw their anxiety mounting. As a teen, Rosemary's fear sometimes festered into anger. "I always wanted to put up a fight, or fight someone, or get kicked out of class," she says.
One of them endures the added indignity of having features resembling those of the family member who abused her. She has shied away from mirrors. In the glass, she saw her abuser's eyes looking back.
In working with Hepburn, and in pushing for restitution, the sisters saw a way to change their direction.
The money is one factor. It can help pay for treatment and replace wages victims would have earned, were it not for the trauma that dented their working aspirations. But it isn't just about the money; it's about validation.
"It's the fact that there's a judge who said, 'Yes, you were a victim here, and this person has harmed you,'" Hepburn says. "There's some quantification of this harm. There's a little bit of balancing that goes on with that."
The letters don't pile up the same way in Canada. Here, there is no formal process for victims to be notified when their images turn up in a case. Without notice, victims cannot add their voice to the process, or claim restitution.
That's something Monique St. German, a lawyer with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, hopes to change. It's one of many things, she thinks, Canada can learn from the experience south of the border.
"They're quite a lot more advanced, at least in terms of the issue of notice," St. Germain says, settling into an armchair next to Hepburn. "They've overcome that hurdle. We're not even there yet."
To St. Germain, these are the points that Canada must make strides to address: victims need to be heard, they need supports to heal. And offenders — the ones who actively perpetuate the trauma, should be made to pay for it.
In Canada, the minimum sentence for making or distributing child porn is six months on a guilty plea, one year if the offender was indicted. Advocates know that including victims' voices can lead to stiffer sentences.
But when child-porn cases get to court, there is a lot of emphasis on what was in the images. For example, the Crown might describe 5,000 images, 80 per cent of which involved kids under the age of 12.
There is far less talk about who is in the images. Often, victims are unidentified; they may be living anywhere in the world. But in a way, the images themselves effectively form a barrier between the crime and its victim.
"(Victims) are not being represented, other than through the images themselves," St. Germain says. "The judge is left to infer, 'OK, I suppose a child who's gone through that may be experiencing trauma.'
"But they have no idea what that trauma might be."
Now, advocates are pursuing ways to bring victims' voices to the forefront. One is by recording victim impact statements; in Winnipeg, Lucy, Rosemary and Odette made a video testifying to their ongoing pain.
Advocates at the Centre for Child Protection believe these videos could be a crucial tool to draw the focus onto victims. The videos will be shared at sentencings, so that judges will hear from survivors directly.
There is also the question of restitution. Canada's Criminal Code includes a provision in for restitution, but it is restricted to cases where damages are easy to calculate.
Two of Hepburn's clients, who are American, have won restitution orders in Ontario courts. So far, Hepburn says, "not a dime has been paid" from those cases, and few other such claims have been made across Canada.
"There has not been a concerted effort to get awards of that nature," St. Germain says.
St. Germain thinks the solution may require legislation separate from the Criminal Code, but that will require some champions in Parliament. Right now, she emphasizes, advocates are at the start of a long process.
"We're sort of at the point where we're trying to identify, what are all the issues?" she says. "What are all the gaps, and how do we go about closing those gaps and advocating for these victims in an effective way?"
What she does know is that this advocacy can change lives. It changed life for Lucy, Rosemary and Odette; when they called Hepburn in 2014, they never imagined it would take them across North America.
That journey has been healing. Two years ago, the sisters went to Washington, D.C., to appear before a congressional subcommittee, part of a push for stronger legislation that Marsh and Hepburn are leading.
At the Capitol, Lucy looked down at the star-patterned carpet, and up at the pristine ceiling. And she thought about the man who first abused the sisters, and about how they'd now turned that hurt into action.
"For the first time," she says, "I saw that our life meant so much more."
Now, they are young women on a mission. They're planning to participate in a survivors' network organized by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection; the idea of helping others, they agree, is affirming.
In Winnipeg, the sisters savoured the experience of being honoured guests. In their free time, they explored the city and snapped photos at local landmarks. In each image, their eyes are full of life; they are beaming.
Back home, their lives are waiting. They are not healed, but they are healing; they plan to start a business, and for a minute they buzz about their ideas. "We need to be our own bosses," Rosemary says.
This is the freedom they have found through speaking. Long ago, abusers took away their power and scattered it to the digital winds. Now, they are pulling it back from the depths, bringing it up into the light and reeling it in.
"We were all just socially awkward," Odette says, and her sisters laugh. "Well, we still are. But we have more fire inside that's just burning, in a good way. Not out of anger, but out of thriving: let's keep going, and push."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.