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Lifting the Limits: Update on Changes in Statutes of Limitations

We know that offenders need access to youth or vulnerable populations to perpetrate sexual abuse. To obtain this access, we know offenders often seek employment or volunteer opportunities with youth-serving organizations. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen changes in the legal requirements and responsibilities for organizations to implement prevention systems to keep the youth they serve safe from harm.

Actual incidents of abuse oftentimes lead to legislative changes and updates in industry standards. In Praesidium’s experience, when a child or vulnerable adult is abused while in the care of an organization, parents and the community demand to know how and why the abuse happened and what the organization could have done better or differently to prevent the abuse. Parents, caregivers, and guardians often want to hold the organization accountable for the gaps that lead to the abuse of their child(ren). This accountability can take many forms, including but not limited to monetary remedies, assistance with survivor care, and changes to how the organization operates. For example, organizations are often called upon to provide financial assistance for survivors seeking therapeutic services, and survivors and their families may take legal action against an organization for the devastating abuse the survivor experienced. One way to do that is to file a civil lawsuit against an organization.

We know there are many barriers for survivors to report abuse, and they may not report for many years after the abuse took place. Nearly all states have some sort of statute of limitations in place for filing lawsuits against organizations for incidents of child sexual abuse. A statute of limitations (SOL) is a law that sets the age limit or amount of time after a person is abused that 1) the person can file a civil lawsuit for the abuse; and/or 2) the government can criminally prosecute an abuser for the crime.1Traditionally, these legislative limits existed to prohibit people from filing lawsuits for historical allegations that may have happened decades ago. However, as people’s awareness and outrage over the prevalence and lifelong effects of child sexual abuse has grown, as well as a better understanding of the barriers to reporting and why it can be difficult for children and youth to report abuse, states are opening up and extending the time periods and/or revising the age limits for survivors to come forward to seek legal remedies against an organization that employed or allowed an offender to volunteer in their programs.

States are revising laws in different ways. For example, the New York Child Victims Act (“NYCVA”) was effective in August 2019. The NYCVA extends the statute of limitations for civil sexual abuse claims from the previous age limit of 23, to the new age of 55. NYCVA created a one-year period starting Aug. 14, 2019, when any adult survivor of child sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit against their abuser or a negligent institution, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. As of January 2020, almost 1,500 civil cases have been filed in New York under the NYCVA. Other states who are expanding the age limit include California, Montana, Arizona, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and others. Some states do not specify an age limit but are opening a window of time for survivors to bring forth expired claims. For example, North Carolina opened up a two-year window of time beginning on January 1, 2020, for survivors to bring forth any claims that would’ve otherwise expired. Several states have bills currently open for the SOL for civil claims brought by survivors of child sexual abuse to be eliminated. Vermont eliminated the SOL and permanently opened the window of time to bring forth a claim beginning in May 2019.

What does all of this mean for your organization? Each state has its own SOL and no two states have the same laws. It is important that you learn about your individual state laws and consult with your organization’s legal counsel to determine exactly how this might impact your organization.

Praesidium has multiple resources available to help you if a survivor comes forward with an allegation, beginning with guidance on providing a compassionate response. Quick Reference Guide Available Here. Additionally, if an allegation is made, we recommend organizations conduct an investigation to help determine why the reported incident(s) happened. When you conduct an investigation, you can learn important information to help you determine where the gaps are in your prevention systems and how you can fill in those gaps moving forward.