Child sexual abuse is an overwhelmingly difficult subject to talk about, both for children and adult survivors. In many cases, experiences are never revealed even later on in life, on account of feelings of embarrassment, shame, or fear. Survivors often develop behavioral issues as a result of not being able to speak out.
As a result, many survivors find it too late to seek legal recourse for childhood abuse later on in life because of various procedural deadlines and filing limitations. This is all changing as newer laws are expanding the time periods in which survivors can file child sexual abuse claims.
Matt Smyth’s Story
Fallbrook, California resident Matt Smyth recalls a time in the mid-1970s when his Boy Scout Troop got a new assistant scoutmaster.
“At first he seemed like a good guy, he seemed to know a lot about the outdoors,” Smyth said.
But one night, during an overnight camping trip, the scoutmaster bunked with a group of boys in a tent along with Smyth. That evening, Smyth awoke to find the leader “basically inside his sleeping bag,” fondling him.
Smyth asked the leader to stop, pulling the drawstrings tight on his sleeping bag, but the assaults happened more times that night. A similar incident occurred again during another camping trip off the Colorado River in Arizona.
He later resisted more invitations from the leader to spend time at a rural property for fishing. Due to the distressing nature of the events, Smyth soon lost motivation for Scouting, fell into the wrong crowd, and started abusing drugs. The trauma resurfaced later in life during counseling sessions and conversations with his spouse.
After recently seeing a commercial for “Abused in Scouting,” he finally decided it was time to take action.
Smyth, now 55 years old, is filing a sexual abuse lawsuit under California’s new law that changes the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The statute of limitations (SOL) is the amount of time a person has to file a lawsuit. It can be looked at as the “filing window” for a claim.
The new law is a significant victory for childhood sexual abuse survivors, as it provides more time to report and take legal action by extending filing deadlines. It represents a growing recognition of the profound mental, emotional, and psychological impact child sexual abuse can have on a person.
Smyth is among potentially thousands of Californians preparing to file claims for past abuses. Survivors could never have done so under the previous statute of limitations.
California’s New Law Extends Child Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations
Smyth’s lawsuit is possible thanks to a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsome on October 13 this year. It allows survivors of childhood sex abuse, regardless of their age, to file a civil lawsuit within a three-year window from January 2020.
In other words, the law completely lifts the sexual abuse statute of limitations for three years, starting in January 2020. This will allow child sexual abuse survivors of any age to bring civil lawsuits if they wish.
Once this three-year filing window closes, the law will also expand the SOL for child sexual assault to allow adults abused as children to file civil suits up until their 40th birthday, or five years after discovering the damages from the abuse. Under the old law, survivors could only file a lawsuit until they were 26 years old, or three years after discovering the damages.
The new SOL rules will likely spur a tidal wave of litigation against private schools and institutions like the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, in addition to cases involving isolated incidents.
The Problem With Child Sexual Abuse Statutes of Limitations
The main problem with a child molestation statute of limitations is that it creates a barrier for survivors to come forward. Survivors might not always understand what the filing deadlines are, or they may assume that their time has expired. In addition, many do not come forward immediately (or at all) because of experiences of stigma, fear, and trauma. Even the thought of sharing their experiences can be terrifying and confusing.
Marci Hamilton, founder of the child abuse advocacy group Child USA, says, “The average age, according to the best science, of a victim coming forward about child sex abuse is age 52.”
Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime that targets a person’s vulnerability and innocence. The devastating effects dramatically impact a survivor’s mental health and can persist well into adulthood. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), survivors are more likely than non-survivors to experience a whole host of mental and emotional health challenges, such as being:
- Four times more likely to develop drug abuse habits
- Four times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood
- Three times more likely to experience a major depressive episode during adulthood
Another frustration with a sexual abuse statute of limitations is that perpetrators often go free when the filing window closes. SOLs frequently aid perpetrators in avoiding the criminal sentencing they deserve; they have also allowed individual offenders as well as entire institutions to avoid paying compensation on the civil side.
New York attorney Michael H. Joseph summarized this issue well, stating, “It’s fundamentally unfair that people who have perpetuated child sexual abuse basically are able to get away with it, by using the age of the child as a way to keep them from coming forward. It doesn’t make sense to allow just the passage of time to shield people who have engaged in this.”
Other states besides California are beginning to wake up and realize how much of a problem child sexual abuse filing limitations are.
More States Extend Sexual Abuse SOLs
Earlier this year, New York and New Jersey both raised their child sexual abuse SOLs to age 55. New York also suspended its sexual abuse statute of limitations for one year. This means it filing deadline is void for a year, after which it will be reinstated. This has led to hundreds of lawsuits filed against schools, hospitals, and other entities.
Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia have all completely removed the statute of limitations.
A year ago, early age abuse survivors in California like Smyth had absolutely no legal recourse for the traumatic events they experienced. Thankfully, these legislative changes sweeping across the nation indicate a significant shift in one of our society’s most troubling issues.
Talk to an Advocate at Jessica Pride Law Today
Like Matt Smyth, child sexual abuse survivors often need healing for events that happened decades ago. Thanks to various statutes of limitations changes, more options are opening up for survivors that weren’t there previously. Pursuing legal action not only provides personal justice and closure, it can also help prevent further incidents by exposing the people or institutions responsible.
Seeking justice through civil court resources gives you a chance to share your story. We understand that it takes tremendous courage and strength to do so.
If you or a loved one have been affected by child sexual abuse, help is available now. Jessica Pride has supported and empowered survivors of sexual abuse, and is a dedicated, compassionate advocate. If you would like to speak about your situation, contact us at (619) 516-8166. All consultations are free and without obligation, and your information will be held in strict confidence.