Working for Justice

Is it Too Late to Bring a Claim of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Posted January 8th, 2021 by Christine Dunn in Criminal/Sexual Violence, Victims' Rights.

By now, everyone is aware of the allegations of wide-spread child sexual abuse perpetrated over the years by members of organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boys Scouts of America. For too many years, allegations of child sex abuse against these organizations and others were kept quiet. As more and more victims come forward to seek justice against their abusers and the organizations who shielded the abuse, the crucial question becomes: is it too late to bring a claim because you have missed your deadline under the “statute of limitations”?

A statute of limitations is a strict time limit within which a claim must be brought. The statute of limitations varies depending on the type of claim and the state where the claim is filed. For example, in Florida you have four years from the date of the incident to file a claim for negligence; but in California you only have two years. If the injured party is a child, the statute of limitations generally does not start to run until the person reaches the age where they are considered an adult in the eyes of the law, which in all but three states occurs at age 18. However, the reality is that statutes of limitations tend to be relatively short and claimants must act quickly in order to bring a claim. 

But, what about child sex abuse cases? There is extensive research showing that most victims of childhood sex abuse do not come forward to reveal the abuse until well into their adulthood. In fact, some studies indicate that the average age of reporting is 52 years old. Children often delay in reporting sexual abuse for a variety of reasons including a lack of knowledge and vocabulary to recognize and articulate the abuse. 

The delayed reporting inherent in child sex abuse conflicts sharply with the strict timelines in most statutes of limitations. In recognition of this tension, advocates across the country have lobbied for a lengthening of the statutes of limitations for claims of childhood sex abuse against individual perpetrators and institutions that enabled the abuse. Many states have passed legislation substantially increasing the time limit for filing a claim based on child sex abuse. For example, in New York, a victim now has until they reach age 55 to bring a claim of child sex abuse, where previously the age limit was 23. Similarly, New Jersey raised the limit for a victim to file to age 55, where previously it was only 20. These are just two examples of the many states who have made similar changes.

In addition, a number of states have enacted “civil windows,” also known as “lookback windows,” for child sex abuse claims. A “civil window” is a set period of time during which a person can bring a claim based on child sex abuse, regardless of when the claim occurred – even if it would ordinarily be decades past the statute of limitations. For example, in August 2019, the New York Child Victims Act went into effect, providing a one-year civil window for victims of child sex abuse to bring claims against individual perpetrators and institutions. New York subsequently extended the civil window until August 2021. Other states that have enacted similar “civil windows” recently include: (i) New Jersey currently has a “civil window” that will remain open until December 1, 2021; (ii) California has a “civil window” open until January 2, 2023; (iii) the District of Columbia has a “civil window” open until May 3, 2021; and (iv) North Carolina has a “civil window” open until January 1, 2022. Vermont has taken an expansive approach and essentially has a “civil window” that will never close for child sex abuse cases.

If you are the victim of childhood sex abuse that occurred in a state with a strict statute of limitations, there is always the possibility the statute of limitations could be extended. Many states around the country have pending legislation to lengthen the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases or to open “civil windows.” The legal landscape is constantly changing to allow victims more opportunities to obtain justice for the abuse they suffered. The victims’ rights lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp can help you to obtain that justice and walk you through the timelines for filing a claim.

Christine Dunn is Co-Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group and a Partner in the firm’s Washington, DC office. Ms. Dunn’s practice involves a range of matters, including criminal/sexual violence cases, whistleblower/qui tam matters, and employment discrimination actions.
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