Should there be any statute of limitations on sexual abuse?

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of pursuing a case as a victim of sexual abuse because of the two year statute of limitations. While, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim of the sexual abuse both realizes that he/she is a victim of sexual abuse AND relates the sexual abuse to the physical, psychological, mental and emotional harm that they have suffered, one question still remains: Should there be a statute of limitations for sexual abuse at all?

New York State is considering eliminating the statute of limitations regarding sexual abuse cases. Presently in New York, a victim of child sexual abuse MUST bring any civil lawsuit regarding same prior turning twenty three (23). The New York legislature is looking to change that and Governor Cuomo of New York is supporting that change.

Recently, the NY Daily News looked at the statutes of limitation for sexual abuse in New Jersey. See New Jersey’s victim-friendly statute of limitations law helps child sex abuse victim sue the teacher that scarred his life, decades later. The NY Daily News considered the statute of limitations in New Jersey as victim friendly. But does it go far enough?

Similar to the bills being pushed forward in New York, New Jersey has considered its own bills to end the statute of limitation for childhood sexual abuse cases such  as New  Jersey State Bill 868.

Bill 868 proposes sweeping reform as it relates to victims of sexual abuse and their access to the court system. This new bill, if passed in the New Jersey Legislature, will eliminate the statute of limitations in civil actions for sexual abuse, expand the categories of entities and individuals that may be held responsible for the sexual abuse and clarify civil actions against public entities.

If enacted, the bill would be a sweeping victory for victims of sexual abuse. These victims would then be able to pursue legal remedies without the harsh time constraints. Moreover, the elimination of the statute of limitations for sexual abuse would lift the burden on victims to demonstrate, not only that they are suffering as a result of the abuse, but also that they were unaware that their suffering was related to the sexual abuse until recently.

Presently, victims face the burden of demonstrating the repressed memories, mental trauma or delayed recognition of the abuse and its effect to be able to pursue their legal rights beyond the two years. The present system essentially asks victims, who are at their most vulnerable and may be beginning to identify their abuse, to move very quickly in filing in any action against their abuser and to pursue claims before they are ready to do so.

Thus while New Jersey is certainly more victim friendly than our neighbor, the state still does not do enough to protect victims of child sexual abuse and to encourage them to bring their cases to court only when they are mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared.

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What Victims of Sexual Abuse Need to Know About New Jersey’s Statute of Limitations

Recently, a New Jersey man, J.D., filed suit against his former Spanish teacher, Ratner, for the abuse she committed against him when he was sixteen years old and a student in her class. This case was covered by the media (see i.e., N.J. teacher accused of sex with student 30 years ago placed on leave; Why this N.J. teacher is shielded from sex-with-student charge).

Many of the comments on these stories question why a student can bring a sexual assault claim stemming from sexual abuse thirty years ago. In New Jersey, the standard statute of limitations for any and all personal injuries, including sexual abuse, require that all personal injury cases commence within two years.  See N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 and 2A:61 B-1 (b).

However, with sexual abuse, the statute of limitations is essentially put on pause where the victim has suffered from psychological, physical, mental or emotional problems as a result of the abuse and has not fully realized the scope of the abuse. The statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim of the sexual abuse both realizes that he/she is a victim of sexual abuse AND relates the sexual abuse to the physical, psychological, mental and emotional harm that they have suffered.

Victims of child sexual assault and abuse do indeed suffer greatly. Studies that there is “a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults….traumatic emotional experiences in childhood (grow) into organic disease later in life.”10 (Felitti, Vincent J., MD. “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Heath: Turning Gold into Lead.” Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program., n.p., 2002. Web. ).  Many victims of childhood sexual abuse experience alcohol abuse, drug abuse, chronic depression, morbid obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and many other effects.

In the case of J.D., the sexual abuse by his Spanish teacher continued for nine years and she twice became pregnant. Both pregnancies ended in abortions. Following the abuse, J.D. continued to be involved with Ratner and her family. However, in 2013, J.D. started to have intense and frequent panic attacks. He had to be hospitalized and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder.

The diagnosis prompted counselor’s visits and treatment that ultimately resulted in a breakthrough on May 14, 2015, during which J.D. realized sexual abuse was to blame for his emotional issues. Because J.D. did not realize that he was a victim of sexual abuse and that sexual abuse was the cause of his ongoing psychological and emotional harm until May 14, 2015, the statute of limitations on J.D.’s case did not begin to run until May 14, 2015.

J.D.’s delayed realization that the “relationship” he experienced was actually sexual abuse is not uncommon. Data on sexual abuse victims tells us that the trauma involved in sexual abuse is difficult to not only understand but also to process. (Summit, Roland, C. M.D., “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.”, Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 7). Many children who are victims of sexual abuse will repress or deny their memories in order to function in daily life. Many victims of sexual abuse are ill-equipped on their own to deal with these issues. They are afraid to come forward for fear of unbelief; that they are lying, and that they are manipulating and fearful of being rejected or abused again.