The injuries associated with childhood sexual abuse usually do not manifest at the time of the injury, but rather, can, and often do, arise much later in life. Because of the latency of the injury, it is virtually impossible for victims of childhood sexual abuse to connect their injuries later in life to their childhood sexual abuse. This is in sharp contrast to an automobile accident, for example, in which the injury occurs at the time of the accident. Expecting a victim of childhood sexual abuse to understand that their mid-life alcoholism and depression are related to their childhood sexual abuse would be akin to expecting someone who breaks their leg in their 40's, to connect that injury to an automobile accident in their childhood. It is unrealistic to expect any person, no matter their station in life, to do so.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the statute of limitations, many states treat childhood sexual abuse injuries as they do automobile accidents and other common injuries. In New York, for example, a victim of childhood sexual abuse has until age 23 to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator of their abuse, and until age 21 to file a civil lawsuit against an institution that could have been partially responsible for the abuse as well. More often than not, a victim of childhood sexual abuse will not even exhibit all of their injuries associated with the abuse until much later in life, let alone connect those injuries to their childhood sexual abuse. By the time they do make that connection, their ability to file a civil lawsuit has long passed.
To address this problem, some states have amended their statute of limitations to include a delayed discovery provision. This allows victims a certain period of time to bring a civil lawsuit, beginning from the time in which they realize that their adult psychological injuries were the result of their childhood sexual abuse. Often times, states will also open a window, during which, those victims whose cases have been barred by the statute of limitations, can bring their lawsuit.
This troubling issue is being addressed in a federal appellate court in New York that will soon face an important decision that impacts many childhood sexual abuse survivors' access to the civil justice system in that state. The court will be deciding a technical, legal argument that survivor's argued, tolls, or pauses the statute of limitations, such that they can still bring their case even after the statute of limitations has technically expired.
While a positive ruling, in this case, is undoubtedly an important step forward for survivors, it really highlights the need for legislatures across the United States to expand their statutes of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases to acknowledge the unique nature of the injuries caused by childhood sexual abuse.
State Assemblywoman Marge Markey has introduced legislation in the New York State Assembly to address this legal roadblock for victims. Her legislation, the New York Child Victims Act, if passed would essentially eliminate the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims going forward, as well as open a one year window for childhood sexual abuse cases that were barred in the past.
We at the Zalkin Law Firm fully support this proposed bill in New York and encourage other states to work towards expanding their statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims as well.