Central Illinois child pornography victim speaks out, seeks restitution

By Ashley McNamee

November 14, 2012 Updated Nov 14, 2012 at 9:43 PM CDT

PEORIA, Ill -- In a world you would never want to be a part of, Jennifer, as we will call her, is famous.

"I try not to think about it but when I do, it's a weird feeling. Like do they recognize me? Would they recognize me now if they saw me?" said Jennifer.

In the early days of the Internet and digital cameras, Jennifer was a child living in central Illinois when her father sexually abused her and circulated images of abuse across the Internet.

Federal prosecutor Tom Keith handled her case 10 years ago and says to this day he's never seen anything like it.

"Her first images are when she is four years old and it covers, up through almost to her 13th birthday," said Keith.

Keith, with the help of computer forensic scientist and Peoria police detective James Feehan, found the images and put Jennifer's father away.

"He ultimately plead guilty in federal court and was sentenced to a long period of time in federal prison," said Feehan.

The problem, Feehan says, is the damage of circulating Jennifer's images is irreversible.

"We found out later that she was one of the most widely distributed series of child pornography on the Internet, worldwide," said Feehan who has investigated hundreds of cases during his career. "I still continue to see her images today even though that case was done 10 years ago."

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has found more than 47,500 images of Jennifer's abuse in nearly 5,000 cases since 2002.

"Like I always want to think, 'oh, what happened to me is in the past but it's not in the past if it's still happening'," she said.

It is not nearly over. Each time someone is found with Jennifer's images, the wounds are opened again.

"It's weird because it doesn't seem like there's that many people but there are that many people," she said. "Especially when I was getting all of the notifications myself it was constant, it was a lot a week. It was a sheer reminder: oh, someone else looked at your pictures, oh, someone else looked at your pictures."

Jennifer is fighting back. She spoke before the Department of Justice along side U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the need for a comprehensive strategy to combat child exploitation.

"A big thing to me now is that they're using me in those pictures," she said.

Now she's asking those convicted of possessing the pictures that torture her everyday to pay her.

"I've never been a person of revenge but I do want them to get caught so they don't hurt anybody," said Jennifer.

"You've only got about four law firms in the United States doing this. I am glad we're one of them doing it here in Peoria, Illinois," said Dan Cusack, an attorney with Cusack, Gilfillan & O Day.

Jennifer no longer receives notification when someone else has been caught with her picture. Now, Cusack and Tom Watson, her lawyers, receive them. Watson has responded to 250 of them with a request that if convicted, the defendant pay Jennifer more than $1 million in damages.

"It's up to the particular judge and how they find it. For example, we've had judges order as little as $1,000 up to $75,000 for a specific defendant," said Watson.

The issue of restitution is being debated across the country. At the crux of the argument is whether the Mandatory Restitution section of the Violence Against Women Act supports restitution for possession of child pornography.

So far, each circuit has a different stance on the issue. The 7th circuit, which covers central Illinois, has yet to make a ruling. In the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the victims, a decision in conflict with other circuits. Now, many believe is headed to the Supreme Court.

"It's a federal law. She's entitled to restitution. I think it's a good thing," said Cusack.

Over the last year, defendants have been ordered to pay Jennifer nearly a quarter million dollars. She has received less than a quarter of that. A special needs trust has been established to help her manage the money.

"It's been an incredible blessing because I haven't ever been able to pay for things I need, like contacts," she said. "It was always a struggle with everything and its helped a lot."

Jennifer wants to use the money to pay for her extensive counseling and school. She is studying to become a computer forensic scientist like Feehan, who she says is her mentor.

"I want to help other people because if you catch people with these pictures then you're preventing them from hurting others," said Jennifer.

The truth is Jennifer still has days when she hurts. She struggles with depression, her future and her feeling for her father.

"I can get angry if I think about things but it's never deep seeded. It's just their actions, not the person," she said.

She urges those experiencing what she went through to speak up and get help.

"They should reach out to help from somebody, like a teacher or somebody they could trust," said Jennifer. "Things can get better. My life is a lot better than it used to be."

If you or someone you know may be a victim of sexual or any abuse, contact the Center for Prevention of Abuse at 309-691-0551.

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