Sexual abuse survivors and advocates urged lawmakers Wednesday to increase the statute of limitations to file civil lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse to 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday.
Victims of child sexual abuse now have seven years, or until they turn 25, to file civil litigation. But many do not come forward to report the abuse until decades have passed, thereby missing their window for obtaining civil damages, supporters of House Bill 1215 testified during an emotional House Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Victims don’t recover quickly; they cannot speak up quickly,” said Susan Burke, a Baltimore attorney and member of the Maryland Association for Justice’s Board of Governors, who testified in support of the bill. “It takes a long time to get up the courage to do that. Seven years is just too short.”
Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles and the bill’s sponsor, was one of several who testified at the hearing about their own experiences as survivors of child sexual abuse. Wilson sponsored similar legislation last year that did not make it out of committee. In urging the committee to allow HB1215 to reach the House floor, Wilson said Wednesday the bill does not amount to a rubber stamp for would-be plaintiffs but is instead a means for them to access the justice they deserve.
“We still have court procedures, there’s still a burden of proof,” Wilson said. “…It doesn’t guarantee success.”
Several victims told legislators it’s unreasonable to expect young adults who are still processing the abuse they suffered as children to come forward and bring litigation in a timely manner. As a defense mechanism, child victims frequently try to forget the abuse, said Dominique Marsalek, a survivor who testified in support of the bill.
“As a kid, it doesn’t make sense. How can you talk about it, how can you process it, how can you even put it into words?” said Marsalek. “Let’s give these survivors the chance to process their nightmare, the chance to understand their reality and seek justice.”
Legislators raised questions during the hearing about the fairness of the bill, particularly concerning the rights of those who would presumably have to defend themselves against accusations of crimes they allegedly committed decades before.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, noted that because the burden of proof in civil cases is lower than in criminal cases — a preponderance of the evidence instead of beyond a reasonable doubt — it could be difficult to mount a defense 20 years after the alleged crime occurred.
But Burke, a Baltimore solo practitioner, said that because physical evidence is rarely a factor in cases of child sexual abuse that are litigated when the victim is an adult, the extended statute of limitations would not increase a defendant’s burden.
“You’re dealing with credibility determinations. Whether that happens at year seven or at year 20, you’re basically dealing with the same quantum of evidence,” Burke said. “The additional passage of time, I don’t think degrades the evidence in any way.”
Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, urged the committee to support the bill but also pressed legislators not to abandon the cause entirely if they saw flaws in its language.
Provisions could be made to better ensure the bill’s fairness, she said, such as enacting “gatekeeping procedures” like those in California requiring a certificate of merit signed by an attorney and a mental health provider if the child sex-abuse survivor filing suit is age 26 or older.
“A lot of these survivors, they do not even begin to come to grips with what happened to them as kids until they have kids who are the same age they were,” Jordan said. “There’s got to be a way for the justice system to respond to these cases.”
The bill, which has been cross-filed as Senate Bill 69, would apply to causes of action arising on or after Oct. 1, 2009, and would take effect this October if passed.
A hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was held on Tuesday.