Removal of Statute of Limitations for Civil Claims: An Important Step
October 25th, 2022
In September President Biden signed a bill removing the federal statute of limitations for civil claims by child victims of sexual abuse. The Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act removed restrictions on all forms of child sexual abuse, including commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The neurological changes to people’s brains when they experience trauma, known as the neurobiology of trauma, played a significant role in helping legislators understand the importance of removing the statute of limitations for victims reporting childhood sexual abuse.
As trauma is better understood through scientific research, there is a greater ability to improve victim services and advocacy. From a survival perspective most people understand the common reaction to trauma is “fight, flight or freeze.” This means that when someone is experiencing fear or a perceived threat, they will respond by fighting the perceived danger, fleeing, or hiding for their safety, or in some cases freezing – the proverbial “deer in the headlights” moment. This is the biological response for how someone’s natural instincts try to protect their physical body for survival.
However, each person’s brain records and remembers the event differently as well; this is the neurological response. Some people remember all the senses -sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound that they experience, while others will remember only some of them. Other people might fixate on a singular object or sound and others will block out the experience all together. Everyone requires a different amount of time, or new perspective, to fully understand their experience.
The difference in processing trauma is why some people may not understand that their experience actually was trauma, while others understand right away. The federal legislation highlights how society is making progress in understanding the challenges that children, and adults, have surrounding stepping forward about abuse – therefore there should not be a limit when someone is ready to seek justice. We applaud this bipartisan effort and hope our lawmakers do not stop there.
After experiencing sexual abuse trauma, one of the greatest challenges a survivor faces is asking for support. Nationally only 1 in 10 child victims will disclose their abuse in their lifetime. The challenges related to the neurobiology of trauma is a significant element, however there are so many other factors. The stigma around abuse, the relationship of the perpetrator to the victim, the fear of shame, and the lack of substantive public discourse around child sexual abuse are further barriers children face when deciding to ask for help. And should a child find the strength to make the disclosure, unfortunately, there is the stress of participating in prosecution.
Our society has improved pursuing and charging perpetrators with crimes against children, but the number of cases which move forward to prosecution is relatively small. There are enormous barriers in place across the nation for children to uphold justice against their perpetrators in a meaningful way. Most often cases go to a plea agreement or are dropped altogether. There are several reasons for this, but most often it is due to the requirement in many states, including Massachusetts, that child victims are required to testify in open court in front of their alleged perpetrator. Another problem that prosecutors have can be the lack of physical medical evidence if a child discloses sexual abuse 3-5 days after it occurs.
We applaud this bipartisan effort and hope our lawmakers do not stop there. “
For each of these circumstances, the age of a victim, the nature of the crime, or whether a child will be able to testify are at the discretion of the judge and prosecutor. And most of the time they will not allow a child on the witness stand if they believe that child is too young. When it comes to explaining about the lack of physical evidence at trial, most jurors do not understand, and defense attorneys exploit this for their advantage at trial.
Currently, there is minimal distinction in the court and trial system for special victims to receive care in the process of testifying. Children must face the same open court scrutiny as adults, in front of their alleged perpetrators, and anyone who wishes to be present for trial. While there are some limitations in the media reporting of these cases to protect the identify of children, in the courtroom they are still treated like adults.
We believe in the rule of law. We believe that everyone deserves the right to a fair and speedy trial and they presumption of innocence. However, we believe that although we have a system to prevent and defend against unlawful prosecution, this same system was not designed to avoid re-traumatizing victims of intimate and devastating violence and crime. We need our legislators to recognize that systems we operate continue to traumatize children, and advocate for them to take action to make the criminal and prosecutorial process more accessible to child victims while they seek complete justice.