In Oklahoma, child sexual assault survivors have until their 45th birthday to bring a civil suit against their assailant. However, survivors only have two years in which to bring a civil suit against an institution that allowed abuse to occur, such as a church or school. In the case of children, this two years begins when they turn 18 years old. These time periods are called the statute of limitations. A statute of limitations in a civil case is a legally fixed amount of time after an event occurs that a person can bring a lawsuit related to that event. Once a statute of limitations expires, it can not be revived. It is important to note that there are different statutes of limitation for criminal cases and civil cases, and this article covers only civil statutes. In 2017, the Oklahoma legislature extended Oklahoma’s statute of limitations to give child sexual assault survivors more time to come forward. Though survivors now have until their 45th birthday to bring a suit, is that enough?
There is a unique trauma associated with child sexual assault. Often, this trauma leads to late disclosure of the abuse. The average age of victim disclosure is 52 years old. In other words, when a child is sexually assaulted, on average, that child will not tell anyone about the abuse until age 52. This significant delay can be attributed to many factors inherent in sexual abuse. Victims may feel embarrassed or ashamed, thinking that the abuse is their fault. Children may feel confused about whether or not what happened was ok and it may take a lot of time and a lot of counseling for a person to realize they were a victim. The assailant may have sworn the child to secrecy or bargained with the child not to tell. One third of child sexual assault survivors never disclose the abuse.
In the United States, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of child sexual assault. This staggering number of victims, emphasized by recent high-profile cases of child sex abuse, has led to reform in some state laws surrounding statutes of limitation for child sexual assault. In recent years, many states have broadened the statutory period so survivors have longer to come forward.
However, many advocates say this is not enough. Many states only offer survivors five years or less after their 18th birthday to bring civil suit against an assailant. And the statute of limitations that have been broadened, like the one in Oklahoma, are still below the average age of disclosure. Organizations like Child USA advocate for the total elimination of statutes of limitation for child sexual assault. This would allow survivors to bring a civil law suit or file a police report any time, no matter how many years have passed since the assault occurred. No states have instituted this model to date.
A handful of states have created “lookback windows,” which allow survivors to bring civil suit against an institution that was partially responsible for their abuse. A lookback window is a one-to-two-year time period during which a survivor can bring a civil lawsuit, even though the statute of limitations on their action has already expired. The creation of lookback windows in these states led to hundreds of lawsuits being filed against major institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.
Statutes of limitation place a definitive end date on child sexual assault survivor’s ability to recover and heal through the judicial system. For many survivors, the sexual abuse they faced as children significantly altered the course of their lives: destroying trust and family relationships and sometimes leading to substance abuse and mental health problems in adulthood. Civil lawsuits help victims recover for their financial losses that resulted from their past assault and can lead to emotional healing as their assailants are held accountable. It is certainly arguable that no time limit should be placed on a survivor’s ability to experience this kind of healing.
If you have been a victim of child sexual assault, contact Koller Trial Law to learn more about your rights in the civil justice system.