What you should know

Statutes of Limitation on Child Sex Abuse
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Statutes of Limitations

Statutes of Limitations (SOL) for child sexual abuse aren’t something we think about often. Every day, we hear stories about a child who has disclosed sexual abuse and who is getting their day in court. What we don’t hear about is the 90% of offenders who are barred from court, and the connection between an obscure law and new victims.

What are Statutes of Limitation on child sexual abuse?

Statutes of Limitations, or SOLs, are laws that say a survivor of child sexual abuse cannot bring their case to trial after they reach a certain age. In most states, the exact statute of limitations is the victim’s 18th birthday or a few years after their 18th birthday.

Don’t a lot of adults make up stories of abuse?

It is very rare for adults or children to fabricate a claim of sexual abuse. If they try, they’ll likely get caught during their preliminary questioning by the police. The fact that evidence fades over time means it’s very hard to convict a decades-old case. But it happens.

How do you prove abuse happened if it was years ago?

Even if a child discloses sexual abuse while they’re still a child, it’s exceptionally rare for them to disclose it immediately after it happens; they often wait months or years. So prosecutors are used to prosecuting cases where a lot of time has elapsed between the incident and the trial.

Children are notoriously poor witnesses in these cases; they often have a flat affect, their developmental abilities are brought into question, and judges and juries often expect to see medical evidence.

Adult witnesses have some advantages that children don’t. Adult victims of the same abuser can organize and corroborate, they can sometimes get their abuser to confess, they can speak more articulately, and they can seek appropriate medical treatment for themselves.

Shouldn’t survivors focus on forgiveness? Does it do any good dragging it all back up?

SOL reform is largely about protecting today’s children.

Some survivors find the experience of bringing their abuser to trial healing. Some survivors find the experience of forgiving their abuser healing. Many survivors say the two things aren’t incompatible.

Being sexually abused raises your Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score, and costs survivors an estimated $210,000 throughout their lives in medical care and lost productivity; regardless of whether they forgive their abuser or not. The mechanism a survivor uses to heal shouldn’t limit another survivor’s right to the courtroom, nor should it deprive a child of their right not to be sexually abused.

Don’t statutes of limitation exist for a reason?

Yes, they do.

Usually, people are most interested in prosecuting a crime immediately after they have been victimized, and there is usually more evidence immediately after the crime was committed. However, child sexual abuse is different.

Children cannot press charges on their abusers themselves. They often don’t have an adult who believes them or advocates for them, and children rarely disclose the abuse while they are still children. A recent study showed it takes survivors, on average, about 21 years before they can speak about their abuse. Since the average age of the first victimization is 9 years old, the problem with SOL’s locking survivors out of the courts before their 30th birthday becomes very clear. There is no Statute of Limitations for murder in any state, some states have removed their Statutes of Limitations (SOL) for child sexual abuse and North Carolina has no statute of limitations on any felony.   

Kids cry when they get a splinter so why won’t they report sexual abuse?

Abusers use lots of techniques to keep kids from disclosing. They commonly use a host of threats and manipulations. They often become a big part of the child’s life, providing them with love, security, gifts, attention, and whatever else can be a useful hook. They desensitize the child to touch, including sexual touch, gradually over time.

About half the time the abuser is part of the child’s family. Relatives rarely suspect each other, and statistically are unlikely to believe or help a child who discloses abuse to them.

Why not focus on current crimes and current criminals?

Sex offenders rarely stop offending until they experience negative consequences. Since offenders will offend from adolescence until their 60’s, ’70s, or ’80s, prosecuting an old crime can spare a lot of children.

Studies show sex offenders often have between 100-300 victims throughout their lives, so every opportunity to prosecute them is a real opportunity to protect today’s kids.

Why do statutes of limitations need to end in civil court?

If an adult survivor is too old to seek justice in criminal court, changing their state’s SOL doesn’t fix that. But retroactive justice in civil court is constitutional if the state passes a law to allow for it.

You are unlikely to meet a survivor who would prefer a conviction in civil court to one in criminal court, but a conviction in civil court is still useful. Lists of sex offenders convicted this way can be compiled and made public, and become a useful tool for people interested in performing background checks. 

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