Statutes of Limitations for Child Sexual Abuse
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are Statutes of Limitation on child sexual abuse?
They 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 (SOL) is the victim’s 18th birthday, or a few years after their 18th birthday.
Aren’t the cases brought forward by adults mostly fabricated?
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 can you prove that you were sexually abused decades 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.
What can we expect will happen when a critical mass of a community has taken a class?
We can expect adults will make better choices about the people and places they entrust their children to. We know that there is more reporting. There is anecdotal evidence that parents who understand the importance of talking about this with their children are more likely to have their child disclose abuse to them. When children disclose to adults who listen and respond to them, more abusers should get convicted, which should mean a decrease in over-all abuse. It seems likely that, as more adults understand often-confusing details about CSA, juries will become better at convicting abusers, meaning even more abusers behind bars and longer sentences. It also makes sense that, as more people understand how significant an issue CSA is, they will demand better laws and policies from their elected officials.
Isn’t it better to teach survivors to forgive, forget and move on with their life, rather than change the law so they can get their day in court?
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 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 their right to not 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 abuser 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 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 Limitation 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.
Won’t a kid who cries every time they get a splinter disclose sexual abuse right after it happens?
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.
Doesn’t it make more sense to go after current crimes than old ones?
Sex offenders rarely stop offending until they experience negative consequences. Since offenders will offend from adolescence until their 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, 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 kids.
I hear a lot about bills to change SOL’s in civil court. What’s the point of that?
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. I have never met 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.
Child Sexual Abuse befalls about 20% of American children. But 90% of the people who abuse them won’t see a day behind bars for their crime. We won’t reduce the rates of child sexual abuse until abusers are no longer above the law.
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