Over the past few years, we’ve seen strides in the protection of people who have been sexually assaulted and abused as children. State legislators are increasingly responding to the fact that a statute of limitations of just a few years is often not enough for survivors. Being ready to come forward can take many years or even decades, if ever at all, and survivors deserve the time and space to make those difficult decisions. High-profile sexual abuse cases involving the Boy Scouts of America, clergy members, and others have underscored the need for more survivor-focused laws. Some legislation has already gone into effect, permitting retroactive filings and extending the time for individuals to come forward with new claims of childhood sexual abuse. More states are still working on changing their laws; others have passed legislation that only works prospectively. As it is up to each state to set its own laws to protect survivors, the caliber of protection varies greatly from state to state.
Many of the state statute changes happened because of the tireless efforts of lawmakers and advocates who have literally spent years working to make them happen. Helping to spearhead the efforts is our friend and colleague, Bridie Farrell. Bridie is the founder of America Loves Kids, an organization that advocates for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, works to create policies that benefit survivors, and connects individuals to resources including trauma-informed legal counsel. She fought to change the law in New York to allow victims of sexual abuse more time to file civil lawsuits and to allow previously time-bared cases to move forward.
Shortly after New York passed the Child Victims Act, three more state governors signed legislation to strengthen their own states’ civil laws on behalf of survivors. Below is a breakdown of the four new state laws. To read about the current laws in other states, check out Child USA’s state guide.
In May 2019, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2466 into law. The law, which took effect immediately upon Ducey’s signature:
- Extends the time minor survivors may take civil action to 12 years after they turn 18 (previously two years after age 18), meaning minors may pursue justice against their abusers until they reach age 30 in Arizona.
- Opened a window that allowed survivors who did not take civil action due to the previous two-year limit to take civil action until December 31, 2020.
- Allows survivors to take civil action against an organization that knew of the abuse.
In October 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 218. The law, which took effect in January 2020:
- Extends the time minor survivors may take civil action to 22 years after age 18 (previously eight years after age 18), meaning minors may pursue justice until age 40 in California.
- Gives adult survivors five years to sue if they discover, after reaching adulthood, that a psychological injury or illness was due to childhood sexual assault.
- Provides a three-year look-back window to survivors who could not take civil action due to the previous California statute of limitations. The three-year look-back window ends in January 2023.
- Allows courts to triple the damages awarded to a survivor if there was an attempted cover-up.
In May 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Senate Bill 477 into law. The law, which took effect in December 2019:
- Extends the time minor survivors may file civil claims to 37 years after age 18 (previously two years after age 18), meaning they may pursue justice until age 55 in New Jersey or within seven years from when they discover that an injury was caused by past abuse, whichever is later.
- Gives survivors a two-year look-back window to file claims that were previously barred by the New Jersey statute of limitations. The two-year look-back window ends in December 2021.
In February 2019, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law Senate Bill S2440, or the Child Victims Act (CVA). The CVA, which took effect in August 2019:
- Extends the time minor survivors may file civil claims to 37 years after age 18 (previously two years after age 18), meaning they may pursue justice until age 55 in New York.
- Provides a one-year look-back window for adult survivors to sue their abusers if they were previously barred from legal action due to the statute of limitations or failure to file a notice of claim/notice of intention to file a claim. Governor Cuomo extended the look-back window to August 14, 2021.
- Changes time limits for prosecution of child sexual abuse crimes. While Class A and Class B felony sex crimes have never had time limits, now all other felony sex crimes committed against children can be prosecuted until the survivor is age 28. All misdemeanor sex crimes committed against children can be prosecuted until the survivor is age 25.
“It really does take years for a survivor to come forward and disclose the abuse,” Bridie said. “But rather than asking them, ‘Why haven’t you spoken up?’ I will continue to work with policymakers advocating for legal pathways for survivors to come forward when they are ready. We had success in Arizona, New Jersey, New York, and California before COVID hit. It is time to take our successful model to other states across the U.S.”
It is our hope, and the hope of many others, that more states continue to follow the example of Arizona, California, New Jersey, and New York. All survivors deserve access to justice, no matter if or when they are ready to come forward. We commend Bridie and lawmakers on the outstanding work they’ve done.
A West Point graduate where he served as captain and military aviator, John Bair continues his commitment to our country through his efforts within the settlement planning industry. He has represented families of victims lost in the Flight 3407 crash, offered pro bono services to the families of 9/11 victims and drafted the first consumer protection bill for plaintiffs (H.R. 3699).