Access to Justice for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse

One of the Judiciary Committee’s major accomplishments this year was eliminating the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits based on childhood sexual abuse. The statute of limitations that had been on the books denied access to justice for some victims of such abuse and enabled some abusers to avoid liability.

Sexual abuse of a child often leads to depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and opioid abuse, and many other health problems. Mental health experts categorize it as an “adverse childhood experience” that can lead to years of negative impact on the victim. However, victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not disclose the abuse or seek legal remedies until long after it occurred. They may not do so because the resulting psychological and emotional damage may not manifest itself until adulthood, they are ashamed of the abuse and keep it secret or repress the memory of the abuse, or they are initially reluctant to sue an abuser who was someone the victim trusted or someone in a position of power.

In short, victims may for years be unaware of the damage they suffer due to childhood sexual abuse or may bury the abuse. But they may eventually come forward. The average age for disclosure of childhood sexual abuse is 52 years old. If there is a restrictive statute of limitations, barring claims after just a few years, delayed disclosure can prohibit a victim from seeking justice in a courtroom.

Vermont law had provided that a victim could bring a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse within six years after the abuse. Alternatively, the victim could bring a civil lawsuit within six years after the victim had “discovered” that an injury or condition was caused by the abuse. This is called the discovery rule. It extended the time within which a victim of childhood sexual abuse could bring a civil lawsuit against an abuser if the victim did not connect an injury with the abuse until long after the abuse occurred.

But, as the Judiciary Committee learned, there were problems with the discovery rule. Even though it extended the time to sue, it still imposed an unnecessary barrier to a victim’s ability to seek justice. Under the discovery rule, victims have to prove the point in time when they learned that their injuries were caused by previous abuse. There was no rational reason to place this burden on victims. The more important point in time is when victims are psychologically ready and able to pursue relief in a court of law.

Because of the drawbacks of the statute of limitations for lawsuits based on childhood sexual abuse, the legislature passed and the Governor signed Act 37 (H.330), which eliminates the statute of limitations for such lawsuits. A victim is now able to sue his or her abuser at any time, when ready to do so. The law also provides that the elimination of the statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse applies retroactively. That means that if a victim’s claim was barred by the previous statute of limitations, the victim is now able to bring the claim.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse can also make a claim against an entity that employed, supervised, or had responsibility for the person allegedly committing the sexual abuse if that entity failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent the abuse. This law eliminates the statute of limitations for that claim as well.

Eliminating the statute of limitations to open the courthouse doors to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse will shift the cost of abuse from the victims to the abusers, provide an additional deterrent to this conduct, and identify hidden child predators.