Childhood sexual abuse litigation FAQ: “Lookback window” laws give voice to victims
Co-authored by Annie E. Kouba.
Updated May 13, 2020 to reflect the extended New York look-back window deadline due to COVID-19. The new deadline is August 14, 2021.
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will suffer sexual abuse by an adult before they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
For many, their abuse is a secret that weighs heavily, well into adulthood, even as abusers walk free and the institutions that enabled the abuse are not held accountable. New “lookback window” laws enacted in several states throughout the country seek to give adult victims of childhood sexual abuse a stronger voice and an opportunity to hold their abusers and abuse enablers accountable in civil court.
One such law, New York’s Child Victims Act, was enacted in August of 2019 and opened a one-year, one-time-only limited period during which victims of childhood sexual abuse may file civil claims against the alleged abusers and enabling institutions that failed to protect children from predators. Claims can be filed under New York’s CVA regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred, and regardless of whether the claim falls outside of the otherwise applicable statute of limitations. The window for filing abuse claims in New York closes on Jan. 14, 2021.
Similarly, Arizona has enacted the Arizona Child Protection Act, which opened a limited period for victims of childhood sexual abuse who were previously barred from filing suit due to the applicable statute of limitations. Arizona’s window to file closes on Dec. 31, 2020.
Continue reading for more answers to frequently asked questions about childhood sexual abuse litigation and newly enacted lookback window laws:
My abuse happened years ago. Why should I come forward with my experiences now?
The recovery and healing process is different and deeply personal for each victim of childhood sexual abuse, as is the decision to come forward. If you are considering coming forward with your experiences, the decision to do so should be based upon how doing so will play into your overall healing process. If you have the opportunity to pursue litigation against your perpetrator or their enabler, that chance is a consideration, but it should not be the only factor.
What groups or institutions might be held responsible for my abuse?
Although not always, in many instances an abuser who sexually abuses a child holds a position of authority over the victim. That position of authority can be anything from a teacher, to a scout leader or clergy member. Depending on the circumstances, organizations may be held legally responsible for the actions of people they hire, employ, or oversee. Examples of employers that may be responsible for the abuse suffered by a victim could include, but are not limited to, youth organizations, school districts, athletic clubs and religious organizations.
What is a statute of limitations?
A statute of limitations is a legal term for the period of time within which a legal cause of action must be pursued. Statutes of limitation vary by cause of action and by state.
What are statute of limitations lookback window laws?
Recently, certain states have passed legislation creating litigation windows related to claims of childhood sexual abuse. These “window” laws essentially revive cases where claims of childhood sexual abuse would otherwise be barred due to the old statute of limitations.
Why are these new laws helpful for abuse victims?
For some victims, the ability to sue their abuser may play a significant role in their recovery and healing. Newly enacted window laws help adult victims by reviving claims that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue. By seeking to hold institutions accountable for enabling abuse, litigation can also help facilitate change to dangerous policies and practices to protect children from future abuse.
Does my state have a window law?
There are a number of states that currently have window laws in effect, including:
Several other states are also considering establishing such laws.
How old can I be and still file a sexual abuse claim?
Each state has its own laws related to claims of childhood sexual abuse. Most states require that victims file a sexual abuse lawsuits within a certain number of years after they turn 18, but each state’s laws differ. In states with active window laws, it doesn’t matter how old a victim is as long as the claim is filed within the window.
How could contacting a sexual abuse lawyer benefit me?
A lawyer with experience in childhood sexual abuse claims can give you legal advice and direction regarding the rights you may have to make claims against your abuser and others who may be responsible for the abuse you suffered. A lawyer with experience in childhood sexual abuse litigation may also be able to direct you to resources to assist in your recovery and healing process. Not every victim of childhood sexual abuse has a viable legal case, but determining that by speaking with a knowledgeable and caring attorney can offer some measure of peace in and of itself.
How does a civil lawsuit differ from a criminal case?
Civil lawsuits seek to hold perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse and abuse enablers accountable for the wrongs they have committed against the victim. A civil lawsuit does so by seeking to compensate the victim of childhood sexual abuse for the physical and emotional injuries the abuse caused. Comparatively, a criminal case seeks to punish the abuser for criminal laws that were violated.
Does my abuser need to be criminally convicted in order for me to pursue civil litigation?
No, an abuser does not have to be criminally convicted in order to be sued in civil court. A civil claim has a lower burden of proof and, as a result, it is possible for an abuser to be found liable in a civil lawsuit despite not being found guilty in a criminal lawsuit.
Can I remain anonymous if I pursue a case?
The laws of each state differ as to whether a victim of childhood sexual abuse can remain anonymous in pursuing a cause of action. In many instances, the parties will stipulate to allow a victim to proceed anonymously. In other instances, the victim’s lawyer may need to seek an order from the court for permission to do so.
If the above questions and answers have left you with more questions, you can contact a childhood sexual abuse attorney. There are also national and regional groups with medical and therapeutic sexual abuse resources, including:
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Darkness to Light
- Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center
- Dorchester Children's Advocacy Center
- National Crime Victims Center at MUSC
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