This op-ed, authored by DeAnn Tilton and Utah House Representative Ken Ivory, originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on March 7, 2016.
For every legal action, lawmakers decide how long a victim has to take the offender to court. Historically, the state of Utah has given survivors of childhood sexual abuse just a few years to get to civil court to seek redress for the harm done to them by those who have abused them.
While short time limits, also called statutes of limitation, can be appropriate for some legal actions, such as property disputes, where it’s in both parties’ best interest to get to court quickly and sort out who owns what, decades of research into the experiences of survivors of childhood sexual abuse tell us that traditional statutes of limitation are inappropriate in these cases.
We now understand, better than ever before, that there are many significant barriers survivors face in going public with the abuse inflicted upon them, not the least of which includes disclosing it to their loved ones. Other barriers include intimidation, shame, fear of losing important family relationships and the distortion that child sexual abuse causes to the mental and emotional ability of a survivor to comprehend the nature and damage caused by the exploitation and abuse. Research now shows that survivors are into their 40s, on average, before they are able to publicly disclose the abuse.
Despite these barriers, some survivors eventually heal enough to find the courage to knock on the courthouse doors seeking justice for the harm done to them. Tragically, they have found those doors were locked years ago by unrealistically short statutes of limitation. This injustice not only prevents survivors from seeking civil damages to recover some of the financial costs for the physical and mental harm done, it also prevents them from publicly informing the rest of society about those who are still free to abuse others.
Last year, the passage of House Bill 277 remedied this problem for those children whose statutes had not yet expired. Victims under the age of 22 by March 23, 2015, now have the time they need to get to civil court. However, anyone age 22 and one day, or older, cannot.
This year’s House Bill 279 is an attempt to rectify this problem. If passed, HB279 affords survivors up to age 53 to bring civil claims against their perpetrators. Those who are already 53 years old would have three years from the time the bill becomes law.
Lengthening the civil statute of limitations in cases of childhood sexual abuse not only helps individual survivors, but it also helps to shift the costs of the harm done from society onto the abuser themselves. This is a critical step toward child sexual abuse prevention. Insufficiently short statutes of limitation have prevented legal enforcement of childhood sexual abuse as criminal and civil actions, creating a vicious cycle.
Up until now, claims typically expire before survivors have healed and matured enough to get to seek any legal redress, thereby silencing survivors and allowing abusers to roam free. Studies show that the average sexual predator of children abuses dozens of children before being stopped by law enforcement. By lengthening the amount of time survivors can get to court, we lower that number, helping to prevent abuse, which is a root cause of social problems like violent crime, homelessness, teen pregnancy, health problems and substance abuse. This is an important step toward creating a healthier, happier Utah.
UPDATE: On the evening of March 10th, 2016, 90 minutes short of the end of the legislative session, HB279 was unanimously passed by the Utah senate.
DeAnn Tilton, M.S., is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and founder of Talk to a Survivor, an organization that supports people working to publicly identify as survivors, and also trains adults to speak up when someone is crossing safe boundaries with children. She is also a Darkness to Light Stewards of Children® facilitator.
Rep. Ken Ivory has represented House District 47 since 2010 and has championed legislation protecting victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.