The photos of 12-year-old “Amber” cavorting in a swimsuit and various skimpy outfits wouldn’t have raised so much as an eyebrow if they had been posted on a family home page. But on lilamber.com — one of a growing number of “preteen model” sites operating in the legal gray area between innocent imagery and child pornography — they have drawn the attention of the Justice Department and prompted a congressman to declare war on the “reckless endangerment” of such kids by their parents and Web site operators.
“This is an unacceptable way for a child to earn lunch money … performing like a circus animal,” Rep. Mark Foley said of the sites, which feature girls as young as 6 wearing revealing clothing and striking sexually suggestive poses but display no nudity or overt sexual material that would run afoul of child pornography laws. “It sickens you that a parent would have such disregard for their own child.”
Foley, R-Fla., was informed by the Justice Department earlier this month that, at his request, it had instructed the FBI to review the pre-teen sites in order to determine whether they are breaking any laws. Foley also asked a House Judiciary subcommittee to hold hearings on the subject, which would allow parents of the girls and the Web site operators to be subpoenaed.
“Lil Amber,” the site that touched a raw nerve for Foley, is one of dozens of preteen “model” sites that have popped up on the Internet over the last few years.
Most customers are adults
There is ample evidence that the sites, which sell photos and videotapes to members, cater primarily to adults, very few of whom are in the market to hire models. Many — if not most — customers are sexually interested in children, and some are pedophiles, according to law enforcement officials and children’s advocates.
“This is legal child porn,” said Ken Lanning, a retired FBI agent who studied deviant sexual behavior during most of his 30 years with the bureau. “It’s not against the law, but it’s exciting and stimulating and arousing for people with a certain deviant interest.”
Officials at Webe Web Inc., the Davie, Fla., Web-hosting company behind a half-dozen pre-teen “model” sites, including “Lil Amber,” have previously denied that the sites cater to pedophiles or constitute child pornography. But after a rash of bad publicity — including an investigation by NBC’s Miami affiliate, WTVJ/NBC 6, that revealed many previously unreported details about “Amber,” her family and the company — they are no longer doing so.
“No one here is going to talk about it anymore,” said a man who answered the phone at Webe Web’s offices but declined to give his name.
'Mommy' defends site
But in an e-mail conversation between MSNBC.com and an individual who says she is the mother of another pre-teen model known as “Jessi the Kid,” the respondent said the site was created to help her daughter fulfill her dream of becoming an actress and was no more racy than ads for fashion lines such as Benetton that appear every day in national publications. Furthermore, she said, the media are focusing only on the revealing outfits and missing the other material on the site geared to appeal to other kids.
“Our site is filled with so many wonderful things that any kid would be happy to see and browse through,” said the respondent, who signed her e-mail as “Mommy.” “Why are you stuck on the few photos we have of her in her custom-made clothing? Have you seen the great updates where she shows you how to make an excellent salmon dish using only tinfoil to bake it with? What about the very fun and informative software reviews that took her months to put together? Any [of] her Yoga video/pics!??”
But fan discussion groups on Yahoo! and Internet news groups support the contention that the child models’ most ardent fans are adults, said Scott Zamost, a WTVJ producer who spent four months investigating the “Lil Amber” site and Webe Web, which also hosts several adult porn sites.
“You could tell by the postings that these weren’t kids who were viewing the sites. Some people were posting poetry,” Zamost said, adding that “Lil Amber’s” fan club at one time had more than 9,000 members.
A chilling quip
Likewise, on an Internet news group for “girl-lovers,” a subscriber who identified himself as “Rainbow” posted a brief positive review of the new “Jessithekid” Web site in December 1999, then signed off with this chilling quip: “Anyone for 10-ish? (groan).”
Foley, who is co-founder of a congressional caucus devoted to issues surrounding missing and exploited children, learned of the pre-teen sites late last year when WTVJ asked about them.
“I was outraged when I first saw it because it’s being passed off as some career-building opportunity or [raising money] to apply for college,” he said, referring to statements on several of the sites saying the proceeds will go toward the girls’ college educations. “To me, it borders on pornography and indentured servitude.”
After purchasing a membership to “Lil Amber” site, which cost $25 for the first month and $19.95 a month thereafter, MSNBC.com reviewed dozens of photos and purchased a videotape for an additional amount to determine how far the site’s creators were willing to go.
In all instances, the material stopped well short of what is popularly considered child porn. The shots showed “Amber” (which is not her real name) in bathing suits, short shorts and skimpy halter tops, but never revealed any genitalia or her breasts. Some of the photos were disturbing — such as one in which she appeared to have been rolled in clay — but others could just as well have been from a backyard birthday party.
MTV meets bad home movies
“Video #4 — Amber Models Summer Fashions” was like a cross between MTV and bad home movies. “Amber” spent most of the hourlong tape energetically dancing in front of a fireplace in a living room, with a placard reading “Jesus” and a family photo on the mantelpiece and a dog statuette alongside.
She “modeled” a dozen different outfits during the dance-a-thon, apparently fashions that were requested or purchased by Web site members. In one scene, she lifted her skirt, giving the briefest glimpses of underwear. In another, the unidentified cameraman lay on the floor and shot up her skirt as she danced away un-self-consciously. That was as far as it went.
At another point in the videotape, an unidentified man whose face was not shown presented her with a new Dell Computer and said, “This was a gift from all your fans … 15 different people.”
Lanning, the retired FBI agent, reviewed a sampling of the photos at MSNBC.com’s request and said that at least one conceivably could considered child pornography under a 1994 decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In that case, U.S. v. Knox, the court ruled that language in the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977 prohibiting the “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” can include “non-nude depictions.” The court upheld the conviction of defendant Stephen Knox on the grounds that videotapes he had purchased showing children posing in leotards were marketed as being sexually exciting.
But Lanning noted that even under that decision, which set precedent only in the 3rd Circuit, prosecutors would have to prove “lascivious intent” on the part of the parents or the Web site operators for a successful prosecution. That would be particularly difficult given that the pre-teens are being presented on the Web sites as “models” rather than sexual objects.
Debbie Mahoney, CEO of Safeguarding Our Children — United Mothers (SOCUM), an organization that aims to protect children from pedophiles, says prosecutors also have an abundance of more clear-cut cases to pursue.
“The is so much hard-core child pornography and so many pedophiles on the Internet that when prosecutors see a kid like this, they say, ‘It may be egregious, but it’s not child porn, so let’s move on to something that we can prosecute,’” she said.
But Rep. Foley said he intends to explore a new legal avenue — whether the parents of the child models could be prosecuted under child-endangerment laws.
“This is reckless endangerment if I’ve ever seen it because you’re basically introducing your child to some really sick people,” Foley told MSNBC.com this week.
Risk of pedophile stalkers?
Such laws vary from state to state, but in general that would require a prosecutor to show that posing for the Web site would subject a child to a “substantial risk of harm.” In the case of the pre-teen sites, both potential physical harm from a pedophile stalker and possible psychological trauma from being treated as a sexual object could be considered, said Chris Paulitz, an aide to Foley.
The idea that a stalker could track down a child model was bolstered by the fact that Zamost and his WTVJ team were able to track down “Amber” and her family, starting out with only a hint from Webe Web co-founder Jeff Libman that she might live in Palm Beach County and visual clues in the photos and videos in which she appeared.
The girl’s mother and step-father declined a request for an interview, but armed with their identities, the TV crew was able to determine that the mother had been a porn performer on an adult Web site several years earlier. Through court records, the crew also was able to track down the girl’s father, who said he was opposed to the site, Zamost said.
Study of risk urged
But anecdotal evidence like that likely would not be enough to persuade a jury to convict on child endangerment charges, said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law.
“One would have to document the risks to children of engaging in these modeling sites … rather than just be speculative about the dangers,” he said. “If there had been cases where kids had been sexually abused as a result of involvement, then I think it would be easier to sustain both in the legislature and, ultimately, in the courts.”
Such an approach also would raise raise serious First Amendment concerns, said Kim Hart, director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center.
“I think that we need to define child endangerment to make sure that we’re not casting a really broad net,” she said. “Does that mean that today we would charge Brooke Shields’ mother for ‘Blue Lagoon’?”
Hart, whose non-profit group seeks to ferret out cases of falsely reported child abuse, also said that while modeling pictures such as those on the “Lil Amber” site are distasteful, they don’t necessarily equate with endangerment.
“Just because someone does something that you don’t like, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t care about their children,” she said. “… If you want to check out the parents and make sure that the child is being clothed and fed and going to school, fine.”
'Unsavory,' but not illegal
Stephen B. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and an expert on sexuality, made a similar point.
“I think it’s reasonable to think that these sites are pandering to pedophiliac interests ... and they are unsavory,” he said. “But this is America, where we tolerate lots of unsavory things for freedom of expression, and I don’t think we’re willing to give up these freedoms.”
While the implications of the effort to crack down on the pre-teen “model” sites will continue to be debated, the girl known as Amber will no longer figure in the discussions.
She abruptly ended her career as an Internet “model” in December with no explanation and was replaced with a new “Lil Amber,” who bears more than a passing resemblance to the original. A posting on a now-deactivated Yahoo! fan group states that “Amber has passed on her legacy to a new model, 11-year-old Jana. ... Amber supports this group ... and [has] authorized it as Jana’s official fan group.”
Her successor doesn’t yet have her own video, but the “Lil Amber” site promises that one is coming soon.