Ending Commercial Exploitation of Girls & Women


Human trafficking is the fastest-growing crime globally. In the United States alone, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation (being trafficked for sexual purposes) each year (Estes & Weiner, 2001). Young girls, especially girls of color and those who have been victims of sexual abuse, are disproportionately at risk of being trafficked. Child welfare systems inadvertently play a part in making girls vulnerable to exploitation—as many as 64 percent of women in prostitution were previously involved in the child welfare system.

Legal Momentum is helping vulnerable girls through public education, legislative reform, and coalition building throughout the country.  Legal Momentum is working with collaborators and partners throughout the country on how to best serve the legal needs of exploited girls, and how to stop the commercial exploitation and trafficking of children by building coalitions to combat human trafficking across the country.

Facts about Human Trafficking

  • The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked globally every year, with 14,500 to 17,500 people trafficked into the United States.
  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected
  • Children who have been sexually abused are especially vulnerable to traffickers
  • Child welfare systems inadvertently play a part in making girls vulnerable to exploitation
  • Human trafficking is a $300 billion industry
  • Online platforms facilitate human trafficking, making millions of dollars off the sale of women and children
  • In 2000, the United States and governments around the world signed the Palermo Protocol, agreeing that trafficking is slavery
  • In 2015, The United States reauthorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which provides criminal and civil sanctions against traffickers

Legal Momentum’s Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking

Experts in Human Trafficking

Carol Robles-Román, Legal Momentum’s President and CEO, is a member of New York’s New Abolitionists, a campaign launched by the Sanctuary for Families and the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition to end human trafficking in New York State and across the globe. As Deputy Mayor to Mayor Bloomberg, Carol led reform efforts and a New York City-wide initiative to end human trafficking.

Carol Robles-Román, New Abolotionist photo

This multimedia initiative taught New Yorkers to recognize the signs of human trafficking, funneled resources to trafficking victims, and encouraged rights awareness and reporting. Human trafficking often occurs hidden from public view. Carol’s initiative brought human trafficking from the shadows—the campaign advertisements, which featured the silhouette of a trafficking victim, information on trafficking, and how to get help—were plastered on city buses and broadcast via television, radio, and public service announcements. The video below, narrated by Emma Thompson, was widely disseminated as part of the campaign:


Legal Momentum Special Counsel Penny M. Venetis is also a subject matter expert in human trafficking. Penny serves as the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School. Penny has developed human trafficking advocacy projects, and recruited and supervised pro bono attorneys from major law firms to work on the Clinic’s landmark cases. She served as Legal Momentum's Executive Vice President and Legal Director from 2015 to 2017, leading the filing of amicus briefs and litigation against Backpage.com on behalf of trafficking survivors and victim service providers.

Lynn Hecht Schafran, Esq., Legal Momentum’s Senior Vice President and Director of Legal Momentum's National Judicial Education Program (NJEP), developed and implemented Legal Momentum’s program to educate judges about gender bias in the courts nationwide. Lynn also serves as a senior staff attorney, litigating and writing in the areas of rape, domestic violence, the intersection of sexual assault and domestic violence, and gender bias in the courts.

Building Coalitions

In 2016 alone, Legal Momentum has connected with advocates in Seattle, Silicon Valley, New York City, and South Florida.

Legal Momentum has also presented at multiple conferences and workshops.

In July 2016, Legal Momentum Board member Loria Yeadon moderated an event with Legal Momentum in Palo Alto, California—in the heart of Silicon Valley—to raise awareness of online sex trafficking of minors today and address ways to end this growing problem. Carol Robles-Román gave the keynote speech and said, “Legal Momentum is ready to lead the charge against child sexual exploitation. We are working with members of Congress to change the law.”

In April 2016,  Penny M. Venetis and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney spoke to students at the Roosevelt House Institute at Hunter College in New York City on "Professionals' Role in Confronting Human Trafficking—How Your Career Might Intersect with Victims of Sexual Exploitation." Penny and Congresswoman Maloney, who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Human Trafficking and the Trafficking Task Force of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, also discussed ways to strengthen anti-trafficking laws. 

In March 2016, Legal Momentum and the Seattle Foundation presented a “Giving Lab” workshop on "Strategies to End Sex Trafficking" in Washington State and around the country. Legal Momentum discussed how internet platforms have created new challenges to combating trafficking. Legal Momentum’s President and CEO, Carol Robles-Román, and Legal Momentum board member and advocate Loria Yeadon presented Legal Momentum’s work targeting the internet platforms that have increased sexual exploitation of women and children.

In May, 2015, Penny M. Venetis contributed her expertise in human rights law at The World Summit: End Sexual Exploitation 2025, a conference in Atlanta sponsored by the Carter Center. Penny contributed to the legislative agenda for the conference, which called for enacting the "Nordic Model" at federal, state and local levels. The Nordic Model—so called because it has been successfully implemented in Norway and Sweden—stifles the demand for sexually exploited individuals by arresting traffickers and purchasers of exploitative sex. “The world must be awakened to the sex trafficking industry. I would like to see every city and state in the U.S. adopt the Nordic Model,” said former President Carter. 

In April, 2015, Penny M. Venetis spoke on a panel on "The New Slavery: The International Trafficking in Women and Girls" at the New York City Bar Association. She highlighted how principles of both domestic and international law can be used to stop traffickers.

Identifying and Addressing Critical Issues

Education and Outreach

Many people have no idea that human trafficking is so pervasive in the United States, occurring in every city and town. Public education is needed to raise awareness among the general public, as well as teens, parents, schools, and at-risk youth. Through public education and the reforms described below, we can end the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children. Legal Momentum is actively working to raise awareness through education and events.

Lack of Adequate Legal Solutions

The United States lacks adequate legal solutions to ensure justice for victims. Many jurisdictions still view victims as perpetrators. Girls who have been trafficked may be arrested on charges of prostitution even though they are too young to legally consent to sex.

Online adult advertising sites promote and facilitate the sale of women and children. So far, they have avoided legal liability, relying on the Communications Decency Act, an antiquated law that was passed to promote commerce on the Internet. Reform is needed to ensure facilitators of human trafficking are held accountable for the human rights abuses that occur on their platforms.

Working to End Human Trafficking

  • Educating the public and raising awareness
  • Building coalitions with organizations and law enforcement agencies across the country, including in Seattle, the Silicon Valley, New York City, and South Florida, to combat trafficking through targeted education, advocacy, and legal and legislative reform
  • Providing valuable technical assistance to municipalities, judges, lawyers, and advocates on all legal issues related to human trafficking
  • Advocating for legislative reforms such as amending or repealing the Communications Decency Act
  • Bringing targeted impact litigation on behalf of survivors and organizations that serve survivors

Legal Momentum and Pro Bono Counsel David Boies File Suits for Nonprofit Clients and Trafficking Victims

On February 7, Legal Momentum and David Boies filed suit in Arizona and Florida against Backpage.com, a website that facilitates child sex trafficking. The lawsuits seek damages on behalf of a trafficking survivor and two service providers that provide care to trafficking victims. Service providers Florida Abolitionist, based in Orlando, and Sojourner Center, based in Phoenix, provide shelter, care, and support to trafficking victims, including individuals trafficked on Backpage. The suits have received attention from the national press, including NBC’s Nightly News, USA Today, Litigation Daily, Reuters, and the Miami Herald.

he purpose of the lawsuits is to end the child rape that Backpage facilitates. According to a 2017 report issued by the U.S. Senate, Backpage makes $9 million in profits each month from sex ads, many of which are for trafficking victims. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has stated that more than 70 percent of all child trafficking reports it receives are linked to Backpage. Florida Abolitionist said in a statement, “Florida is a hub of human trafficking, much of it on Backpage. The Florida Department of Children and Families reported that in 2015 alone, it received 1,892 reports of human trafficking. We are proud to be a part of this lawsuit because every day we see how much suffering Backpage causes.” “I’m delighted the microscope has been focused on Backpage and the internet that has become an instrument for this modern-day slavery,” Florida State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said of the lawsuit. Sojourner Center said that Backpage.com “Made millions of dollars in profits each year from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking, including of children.”

David Boies, Legal Momentum’s pro bono partner on these lawsuits, said, “The real heroes are the trafficking survivors who are courageously pursuing this. It’s a dramatic failing of our legal system that something so obviously terrible continues to flourish.” He has handled some of the most important public interest lawsuits in the nation, including successfully advocating for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time. Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover,” said Carol Robles-Román, Legal Momentum's President and CEO. 

LM Urges D.C. Circuit Court to Support Senate Action against Backpage

In late December, Legal Momentum and its national stakeholders, represented by David Boies of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, filed an amicus brief urging the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide in favor of the U.S. Senate in its action to require the website Backpage.com's parent company to comply with a Senate subpoena. The Senate is requesting information about Backpage.com as part of an investigation into its business practices. Last spring, the Senate held Backpage.com’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, in contempt of Congress for failing to appear at a Senate investigative hearing.

Legal Momentum Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Consider an Important Online Child Sex Trafficking Case

Legal Momentum and the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner filed a “friend of the court” brief urging the United States Supreme Court to take up the case of Jane Doe et al. v. Backpage.com et al. The plaintiffs are several women of color who were advertised for sex on Backpage.com in Massachusetts and Rhode Island when they were minors—beginning at age 15—and were raped hundreds of times as a result. Backpage is a classified advertising site that dominates the world market for commercial sex ads—posting one million sex ads per day, according to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. It rakes in an estimated $9 million in profits every month from that business. Unfortunately, the district court dismissed the women’s case last spring. The women appealed, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal. The appeals court interpreted a 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), as protecting Backpage.com from being sued. Legal Momentum believes that this is a serious misinterpretation of the CDA, which Congress clearly intended to protect children from exposure to harmful materials online. Using the CDA to shield a site that operates as an “online marketplace for pedophiles” is a perversion of Congress’s original intent to protect children, says Carol Robles-Román, Legal Momentum’s President and CEO.

In March, Backpage.com was held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a Senate investigation into its facilitation of online child sex trafficking. In October, Backpage.com’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, was arrested in Texas on charges of pimping a minor that were filed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. The company’s co-founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were also arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit pimping.

Legal Momentum strongly encourages its supporters to join in the fight against online commercial sexual exploitation to help call attention to this case on social media using the hashtag #CDAnot4traffickers.

Several anti-trafficking activists and organizations also signed on to the Legal Momentum amicus brief, including: Cindy McCain, Florida Abolitionist, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), Rising International, the YWCA of Silicon Valley, Sojourner Center, StolenYouth, and StreetLightUSA.