In 1998, a 5-year-old Russian girl named Masha Allen was adopted by Matthew Mancuso, a divorced Pittsburgh millionaire. Mancuso is now in prison for creating and distributing over 200 pornographic images of Masha, which were widely disseminated across the internet. “Masha’s Law,” named for Masha Allen, aims to give child pornography rights to victims through an alternative avenue of relief, and recent changes to Masha’s Law expand this further.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that child pornography is already a multi-billion-dollar industry and continues to grow at alarming rates. Between 1997 and 2003, there was a 1500% increase in the number of pornographic images of children on the internet. By 2003, child pornography accounted for 20% of all internet pornographic material. Disturbingly, some of the most significant areas of growth were child pornography depicting younger victims and those depicting violent abuse of children.
The number of federal child pornography cases prosecuted by the Department of Justice increases each year, emphasizing that these prosecutions are a priority at the federal level. However, the number of prosecutions continues to be significantly lower than the number of child pornographic images on the internet. Each year, there are approximately 80,000 reports of child pornography and 1,400 child pornography prosecutions. Further, criminal charges can take many years to resolve and can retraumatize victims in the process, often requiring victims testify about the abuse in front of their abuser. In some cases, prosecutors may decide not to file criminal charge at all. These factors led the private law bar to come up with a different form of relief to provide child pornography rights to victims of child pornography: civil lawsuits.
In 2006, “Masha’s Law” went into effect, which allows victims of child pornography to file civil lawsuits against any person who produces, distributes, or possesses any visual depiction of a child engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Child pornography rights exist because victims suffer every time someone possesses, distributes, or views pornographic material in which a child is depicted. This strips children of their right to privacy and perpetuates feelings of shame and powerlessness. Allowing victims of child pornography to civilly sue these perpetrators not only aims to deter future perpetrators, but also seeks relief from the emotional damage done to victims.
In 2018, Congress amended Masha’s Law to expand child pornography rights to victims. Now, Masha’s Law allows victims to recover $150,000 for each violation of the federal criminal child pornography statutes, plus costs and attorney’s fees. Victims may receive $150,000, even where their actual damages are less than that amount. Victims may also seek punitive damages against a defendant. The 2018 changes to Masha’s Law allow lawsuits to be filed up to 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday or within 10 years of discovering the child pornographic images were taken or distributed. Of important note, for a civil suit to be brought under Masha’s Law, the defendant need not have been criminally convicted of charges related to the child pornography. These legal reforms increase offender accountability in federal civil courts and empower child pornography victims to seek relief on their own terms.
The United States Department of Justice estimates that over one million children in the United States are victims of child pornography. If you or a family member have questions about your rights for civil accountability in a situation of child pornography, contact Koller Law to find out more. The initial consultation is always free.