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Does A New Law Give NJ Sex Abuse Victims Enough Time?

By Emma Cueto | May 19, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

New Jersey just gave victims of childhood sexual assault an additional 35 years to bring lawsuits against perpetrators. But while advocates praised the move, they also noted that New Jersey had not gone as far as some other states.

Signed on May 13, the New Jersey law — which affects only civil cases — allows people sexually assaulted as children until age 55 to file a lawsuit against their abusers, a vast change from the old rule that gave child victims only until age 20.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the CEO of child protection nonprofit Child USA, told Law360 that although giving victims until age 55 to come forward sounded like a long time, the average age that victims come forward is 52.

“Fifty-five is a vast improvement over the current statute of limitations, but it is still not overly generous to the victims,” she said.

In her opinion, the best policy is to not only give victims a window for anyone to come forward, as New Jersey has done, but also to eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for sex crimes against children.

In fact, the original version of the New Jersey bill did just that, according to Patricia Teffenhart of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“We have no criminal statute of limitations in New Jersey [for sex crimes against children],” she pointed out. “We do think that [eliminating the civil time limits] is the most trauma-informed way of addressing what the FBI identifies as the second-most violent crime.”

Nationally, some states have gone in that direction. Delaware, for instance, has removed the statute of limitations in both civil and criminal cases for sex abuse cases.

In New Jersey, the new time limits only apply to cases arising after they go into effect in December, but the law also creates a separate two-year window in which anyone assaulted as a child can come forward and file claims, regardless of the statute of limitations that would otherwise apply.

The law also extends the time limits for adult victims to seven years after a sexual assault, as opposed to the two years they had previously.

“This law would not have made it to the governor’s desk today if it wasn’t for the tireless efforts of survivors, advocates and organizations for over a decade,” state Sen. Joseph Vitale, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a statement. “Their work is an affirmation for all survivors of sexual assault, past and present, and today, New Jersey is a more just state.”

Vitale’s office did not return a request for comment on Friday.

The bill also received praise from advocates and victims groups, and despite their concerns that the bill could have been even more inclusive, Hamilton and Teffenhart described it as a vast improvement compared to previous limits on the suits that victims could bring. Teffenhart said in an earlier statement, “Put simply, this bill gives survivors more options and opportunity to pursue justice.”

The Archdiocese of Newark, however, said that while it agreed with the need to provide justice for victims of sexual abuse in New Jersey, it disagreed with “specific elements” of the current legislation.

“The Catholic community is confident that the Independent Victims Compensation Program established by the five dioceses in New Jersey is a significant step towards restoring justice for those who, as minors, were abused by ministers of the church,” the statement said.

Critics of the proposal also argued that it could unleash a wave of lawsuits that would bankrupt nonprofit and charitable institutions, depriving communities of the good work they do.

While giving survivors several decades to file suits might seem like a long time, it really isn’t, Hamilton argued.

Sexual abuse can have a profound effect on victims’ physical and psychological health, according to Hamilton, leading to problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to drug and alcohol addiction, which can make it very difficult for people to grapple with the underlying trauma.

While some people do come forward as children, others need decades to be able to talk publicly about their experiences, she said — and in fact, many never do.

Moreover, she said, the ability to bring civil cases is important for victims, even if it can’t result in prison sentences. Filing court cases protects victims from being sued for defamation in most cases, Hamilton said, meaning they can speak publicly about their experiences, helping identify serial predators.

A lawsuit can also shift the monetary cost of the abuse from the victims and the state — which both might be on the hook to pay for treatment of the physical and psychological damage — to the perpetrators themselves, Hamilton added.

Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., have had legislation pending this year that would eliminate civil or criminal statutes of limitations for at least some sex crimes. In most of those states, the bills are still active, and in Montana, Utah, Washington State and the District, the measures have become law.

The changes and proposed changes vary in scope. Washington, for instance, fully eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for several crimes, including child molestation. Utah, meanwhile, only eliminated the time limits for human trafficking of a child, though both states also extended time limits on other crimes.

Other states have opted to either extend the statute of limitations or to create special windows for victims to file claims that would otherwise be time barred -- or, in states like New Jersey, to do both.

On the whole, states have been quicker to eliminate criminal time limits than civil ones. A total of 42 states and Washington, D.C., have eliminated criminal statutes of limitations for at least some sex crimes, while only nine states have done so in civil cases.

Overall, though, Hamilton said that the past few years she has seen more movement on this issue than ever before, which she attributes to more awareness brought on by more cases.

“It’s really the cumulative effect,” she explained, pointing to recent high-profile scandals involving the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, as well as many others that have arisen over the past decade.

“People have learned to believe the children, believe the victims,” she said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.