20 Mar 2011

Nebraska Senate considers bill extending statute of limitations for survivors of child sex abuse

Journal Star - Lincoln, Nebraska March 17, 2011

Senators consider giving child sex assault victims more time to sue

By KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska lawmakers are considering tripling the amount of time victims of sexual abuse as children have to file a lawsuit against their abuser.

Under Nebraska's tort law, people have four years from when they turn 21 to file suit over injuries received while minors.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee discussed a bill (LB612) Thursday by Sen. Pete Pirsch of Omaha that would increase that to 12 years for victims of child sexual abuse.

"Child victims of sexual assault are profoundly and psychologically affected,'' Pirsch said, adding that many victims suppress memories of the abuse until much later in life.

"It's invisible," he said.

Statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse vary widely from state to state. Some have laws that allow the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases to "toll" -- or not run -- until the victim reaches a certain age.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, several states have statutes of limitation of 20 years or more.

Maryland legislators rejected a measure in 2009 giving child sex abuse victims until age 50 to file against their abusers. The Maryland Catholic Conference, which had been dealing with several cases alleging sexual abuse of children by priests, lobbied against the legislation, claiming it would have discouraged victims to promptly report child abuse.

The Nebraska Supreme Court has said the statue of limitations can also be tolled in cases in which the abuse causes repressed memory to the time the victim "discovers" the abuse -- often after seeking mental health counseling for other problems such as depression or drug and alcohol abuse, which is common among such victims.

Lincoln attorney Herb Friedman, who has tried several such cases, said proving repressed memory is difficult.

"For every psychologist or psychiatrist who says there is such a thing, you've got about half a dozen who say it doesn't exist -- that they knew it all along," Friedman said.

Omaha lawyer Gordon Peterson, who also has handled abuse cases, appeared in support of the bill.

"These are psychic injuries -- they are severe," he said. "They don't show up right away -- I'm talking decades."

Joan Hilman of Omaha, who said she was abused by three different men starting when she was 4 and continuing until she was 12, said she was unable to mentally deal with it until she was an adult, long after the statute of limitations had passed.

"It had taken me years to come to that place,'' she said. "I could not do anything."

Some states, most notably California and Delaware, have passed so-called Window Legislation, which gave victims a time period to file claims otherwise barred by the statute of limitations. California established a one-year window in 2003, which resulted in the filing of nearly 1,000 lawsuits.

Courts have wrestled with the issue.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year that 2006 legislation unambiguously set a 12-year statute of limitations after a victim's 18th birthday to file a lawsuit based on childhood sexual abuse. The law, however, did not allow for tolling in cases of suppressed memory.

"We are cognizant of the proposition that some victims of childhood sexual abuse may not recover their memories of the abuse prior to the expiration of the 12-year statute of limitations, and we are not without compassion for those victims," the court said. "But this court would invade the province of the legislature and violate the separation of powers if it rewrote the statute to include a tolling provision for repressed memory. ... This court will not engage in such a practice and must leave it to the General Assembly to rewrite the statute if it deems it necessary."

According to the group Reforming Statutes of Limitations on Child Sex Abuse, an estimated one in four women and one in five men in the United States were sexually abused as children.

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