Child porn arrests made in Rehtaeh Parsons cyberbullying case

Two 18-year-olds face charges of distributing child pornography for allegedly posting online a photo of a sexual assault of Nova Scotia teenager Rehtaeh Parsons. She killed herself in April after what her parents describe as relentless taunting. 

By , Staff writer

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    A woman holds a photo as several hundred people attend a community vigil to remember Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in April. Police said Thursday that they have made two arrests in the case of the teen who died after a suicide attempt, after a photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was shared online.
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The arrests of two young men on child pornography charges, announced Thursday in Nova Scotia, bring renewed attention to the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a teen who killed herself last spring after what her parents describe as relentless taunting prompted by the circulation of a photo of her being sexually assaulted.

The case, along with similar situations in the United States in which teens have circulated online images of sexual violence, has prompted soul-searching discussions across North America – and even new legislation – aimed at preventing such behavior.

Child pornography laws are not a perfect fit for dealing with such images, legal experts say, but they are one tool, along with laws against sexual harassment and cyberbullying, that prosecutors can use at their discretion to hold teenagers accountable and sometimes to impose education or counseling.

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Rehtaeh’s parents say the assault took place in November 2011, and police originally brought no charges. Now police say that new evidence prompted more investigation in April and led to two men, now 18, being charged: one with making and distributing child pornography, the other with two counts of distributing. Because the men were minors at the time, they will appear in youth court, on Aug. 15.

Police say there was not enough evidence to bring sexual assault charges. The original police investigation is under review by the Nova Scotia government.

“We hope that today’s arrests help the community to heal,” said Chief Superintendent Roland Wells of the Halifax District Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “A young girl has died in what was a tragic set of circumstances. We all need to reflect on how we as a community can come together in Rehtaeh's memory and see what we can do to work together to support our youth.”

Typically, first-time youthful offenders charged with child pornography don’t end up going to jail, but prosecutors can seek to try them as adults, and penalties for adults have been strengthened in Canada in recent years, says Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

In Canada, a government committee has recommended strengthening the criminal code to make it illegal to distribute intimate images without consent, whether they are of minors or adults.

But Rehtaeh’s case has already prompted Nova Scotia to become a leader of sorts in Canadian efforts to prevent the hurtful distribution of sexual images and other types of cyberbullying among youths.

On Aug. 7 a new law took effect in the province that allows people to seek a protection order to place restrictions on, or help identify, a cyberbully. The law also allows victims to sue for being cyberbullied.

That has “significant potential,” because “when you get hit in the pocketbook you pay more attention,” says Professor MacKay, who chaired a bullying and cyberbullying task force in 2011-12 for the Nova Scotia education department. Parents can even be held liable if their minor child is cyberbullying and they have not sufficiently supervised his or her online activities, MacKay says.

The law also requires principals to respond to cyberbullying even if it occurs outside of school or school hours. And it sets up a special unit to investigate complaints of cyberbullying, the first of its kind in Canada.

In April, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection set up an online site, NeedHelpNow.ca, to help youths who have been harmed by the distribution of sexual pictures or videos online. Rehtaeh’s parents and others who have lost children to suicide in the wake of online harassment have participated in the establishment of the website and discussion forums on the issue.

“Rehtaeh was failed by the school system, legal system, and the health system,” said Parson’s parents in a May statement released by the Centre, which they praised for working “to ensure changes are made so that another child does not fall through the same cracks in the system.”

On Thursday, Rehtaeh’s parents said news of the arrests brought some solace, though her father said he was disappointed that his daughter didn’t see justice during her life.

In the United States, similar cases have surfaced in recent years. Last spring three teenage boys in California were arrested on charges of sexual assault against Audrie Pott, a teen who killed herself after related photos surfaced online. In Steubenville, Ohio, two teenage boys were convicted of rape and one of them was also convicted of child pornography for a circulated picture of the naked victim. In Chicago, three teenage boys are being tried as adults for allegedly raping a girl at gunpoint and posting a video of the attack on Facebook.

Such serious cases are more likely to be prosecuted, but at least half of state legislatures in the US have updated laws to protect young people caught up in more benign forms of “sexting” – sending intimate images to a romantic partner, for instance, says Jesse Weins, a criminal justice professor at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. Rather than charging teens under child pornography laws – originally intended to stop abuse and exploitation, particularly by adults or predators – or other violations that might lead them to be labeled as sex offenders, many of these new laws set up less severe and more educational consequences.

The challenge for law enforcement and school officials is that it’s not always clear what the circumstances were that led to the images being made and circulated.

Some of the images are “situations of abuse, exploitation, and violence … but sometimes kids are experimenting with sexting in a loving relationship,” says Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University School of Law. “The two categories can become blurred, because if the image is made in a relationship, but then later redistributed [after a breakup, for instance] it can be hugely humiliating for the child pictured,” she says.

In July, a 15-year-old girl was arrested for a photo of her 14-year-old friend performing a sex act on a boy, according to a story on the news site MyFoxTampaBay.com. Police said the subjects of the photo knew they were being photographed, but that the girl distributed the photo to schoolmates after a falling out with her friend. One was an 18-year-old, who she knew was planning to post it to Twitter, and he has also been charged. Police and school officials urged parents to be sure they can monitor their children’s media accounts and cellphones and reiterated to students that creating or distributing such images is against the law.

“Children document everything they do,” Professor Adler says. “It’s a huge sea change in our culture … and it has run into conflict with child porn law.”

In the wake of teen suicides such as Rehtaeh’s and Audrie’s, some people have contemplated adding extra penalties in cyberbullying laws if the victim commits suicide, Professor Weins says. The problem, he says, is that “if we put that in the law, it’s a bit of an incentive for people being bullied to kill themselves,” because they might think that’s the only way for the bully to receive punishment.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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