Giving sexually abused children up to 20 years to file charges. Massachusetts bills extend time; some worry about proving cases

As sexual abuse of children is dredged out of society's closet of horrors, more and more victims are admitting their painful pasts. Adults just now coming to terms with childhood abuse will have more opportunities to confront their abusers in Massachusetts courts, if a bill before the state legislature passes. Massachusetts is unique in its proposal of an extended filing date for civil sexual-abuse suits. Plaintiffs would have either 10 or 20 years after they turn 18 to file a civil action against their alleged abusers. Most states rely on their statutes for general tort actions, about three years on the average, for civil cases.

Supporters of the legislation are having to answer some tough questions. Some legislators are concerned that evidence will have ``gone stale'' when a victim waits so many years before filing charges. Constitutional issues such as violation of due-process rights may also come up. Society's interest in protecting children and the fact that it can take years for victims to be able to testify will probably supersede such questions, says Arthur Miller, a law professor at Harvard University.

``Most survivors don't have the security, safety, not to mention financial resources to sue at age 21,'' says Ruth, who was sexually abused when very young and now is part of the Incest Survivors Network in Cambridge, Mass.

Massachusetts already has a law that allows criminal suits to be filed up to 10 years after the victim reaches 16. And a national movement to extend the statute of limitations for criminal sexual-abuse cases is growing, says Robert Horowitz, associate director of the Child Advocacy and Protection Program of the American Bar Association.

But state Rep. Barbara Gray (R) and state Sen. Carol Amick (D), sponsors of the Massachusetts legislation, say an extension for civil suits is necessary.

``If you're accusing someone of criminal actions, particularly your father or brother, I think it's far more serious than actually recurring civil damages,'' Representative Gray says. The victim may not want to see a family member go to jail, she adds.

Monetary awards in successful civil suits were also a factor in the push for legislation. ``People we've been working with have been paying costs out of their own pocket, which they don't get reimbursed for in criminal cases,'' says Megan Hayes, a legislative aide for Senator Amick.

Psychotherapy for sexual-abuse victims usually takes a minimum of several years at a cost of $70 for a 50-minute session, if the therapist does not use a sliding scale, says Ruth. Medical treatment can also be part of treating abuse, she adds.

Even job performance or salary potential can suffer. Some victims have recurring nightmares that force them to work part-time. ``And your self-esteem has suffered so much that you can't go out and get a great paying job - that's the Catch-22,'' she says.

Amick's proposal of a 10-year extension proved controversial to a number of state senators who are lawyers. ``Evidence class is one of the first classes you take in law school. And you learn the fresher the evidence is in your mind, the better your memory is,'' Ms. Hayes says.

``It was easier for them to accept an extended statute of limitations for criminal cases where you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has sexually abused you. In civil cases you just have to prove that a preponderance of evidence demonstrates that someone sexually abused you,'' Hayes says.

She points out that the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff's shoulders in civil cases as well as criminal. And the very fact that it has been so long since the alleged abuse took place will make it tougher to convince the judge, she says.

A child often does not come forward with charges of sexual abuse because of threats or intimidation by the abuser. Abuse is not always painful or unpleasant, says Margot Botsford, assistant district attorney of Middlesex County in Massachusetts.

``Parents of abused children may do it under the guise that it is normal, acceptable behavior, so children don't see it as wrongful right away,'' says Mr. Horowitz. He compares sexual abuse to the perpetration of fraud - an extended statute of limitations is necessary because the victim does not know right away that a crime was committed.

Incriminating testimony can be complicated because victims of sexual abuse may repress their memories of the incidents. Ruth says she pushed back memories of abuse for years for ``her very survival.'' Medical records, family members or teachers, and expert testimony have been used in court to verify abuse charges.

The Massachusetts Senate will take up a compromise version of the bills by Amick and Gray in the fall. Although support outside the State House is increasing, opposition is still firm in some corners, particularly the Senate.

``Attorneys in both the Senate and the House are reluctant to do anything statutorily that would lessen the opportunity for them to defend alleged perpetrators,'' Gray says.

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