For more than five years I served in the Special Assault Unit of the Prosecutor’s Office, or SAU, where I prosecuted rape, child rape, child molestation and other sex crimes. On the television show Law and Order they call it the Special Victims Unit, or SVU. Real life isn’t as fast and tidy as TV, but the general idea is the same.
Plaintiff attorneys and prosecutors agree these are among our most challenging cases. Lawyers who handle these cases need a particular knowledge, understanding, and compassion.
Victims, especially children, can be hesitant to report sexual abuse. “Delayed reporting” of sex crimes is a common phenomenon. Victims can take years to process and disclose the abuse.
Washington State has laws favorable to victims of sex abuse. The statute of limitations – the window of time in which a lawsuit can be filed – is tolled until the victim turns 18. Further, even after the victim turns 18, the statute of limitations doesn’t run until the victim “discovered that the act caused the injury for which the claim is brought.”
In other words, under Washington law a victim may have a valid lawsuit long after the actual abuse. Victims need to discuss their situation with an attorney familiar with this particular area of the law.
Recently, federal law caught up to and even surpassed Washington State law with the “Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act.” This legislation was signed into law in September of 2022.
In an unusual show of bipartisanship, Congress eliminated the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. Murder is the only other crime with no statute of limitations. Most felonies have a three-year statute of limitations for criminal charges. Civil lawsuits are also typically restricted by a two or three year statute of limitations.
“Eliminating civil child sexual abuse statutes of limitations will allow survivors to have their day in court and a moment of healing,” Senator Bill Durbin, one of the sponsors, said. “This is common sense, bipartisan legislation.”
According to CHILD USA, an advocacy group, data suggests 86 percent of child sexual abuse goes unreported. For victims who do report, “delayed disclosure,” or the tendency of survivors of child sex abuse to wait for years before disclosing abuse, is common. One study found the average age of survivors at the time of disclosure was about 52 years old.
“Bravo to Senator Durbin and Senator Blackburn on their bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I know well the silencing effects of fear, shame, anxiety, and PTSD. This bill will honor basic notions of justice, it will prevent re-victimization of brave survivors while holding wrongdoers fully accountable.” said Kathryn Robb the Executive Director of CHILD USA.
The legislation was also endorsed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), where I attended training on prosecuting these cases when I was a deputy prosecutor. Sexual abuse cases require a particular set of skills and mastery.
Whether a claim should be filed under state law or federal law is a question for an experienced attorney familiar with the facts of a specific case. Either way, sex abuse victims in Washington State likely have legal remedies long after the abuse, as they should.
Justice delayed does not have to be justice denied.