Delegate, Survivors Push to End Limitations on Child Sex Abuse Claims

Advocates embrace Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) after a bill hearing Thursday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Dozens of sexual assault survivors filled the seats of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday afternoon as the panel considered a measure to get rid of the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits. And after emotional testimony from Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), a survivor of abuse himself, they stood up behind him in silent solidarity.

Some of the survivors, wearing all white, carried pictures of their younger selves. Jena Cochrane held a photo of herself, at 12 years old, wearing a red dress with white lace trim and a flower in her hair. Six months later she would be raped, changing her life forever.

Though she has testified on bills as an advocate for children in the past, this year is the first time Cochrane shared her own story with lawmakers. She wants them to understand why abuse victims may take years to come to terms with what happened before seeking justice in civil courts.

“You as a victim sometimes get a life sentence, while the law protects perpetrators with a statute of limitations,” Cochrane said. “That’s not fair. We want an opportunity so that when we’re brave enough to come forward, we have a platform to speak.”

Wilson has sponsored House Bill 687, or the Hidden Predator Act of 2019. The bill would get rid of the state’s statute of limitations for civil claims against perpetrators of child sex abuse – and would also include a two-year look-back window, a time in which victims could bring claims in cases where the previous statute of limitations has expired.

Wilson said the changes to law were necessary because many victims of abuse in youth aren’t ready to deal with the issue until they’re older. For him, it was after he became a parent himself.

“That’s when it dawns on most of us. We see ourselves and what was taken,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the look-back window is also critically important because it could uncover ongoing abuse.

In California, 300 additional child sex abuse suspects were found after victims made claims that had previously been time-barred, according to CHILD USAdvocacy, an organization that supports changes to child welfare laws. During look-back windows in Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota, serial abusers were found to be the subject of hundreds of claims.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have revived expired statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, according to Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy.

In recent cases, courts have found the look-back windows for time-barred claims to be constitutional, she said.

“Know this: [perpetrators] don’t stop at 30 and 40, they go all the way up into their 80s,” Wilson said. “This is a compelling state interest to protect our children from predators that are still out there, that will only be discovered, unfortunately, by lawsuit.”

But for Wilson, who has successfully championed extensions of the statute of limitations to bring civil cases of perpetrators of child sex abuse, this year’s effort to expand access to justice has taken on a strange new angle. Dominating discussion since the bill reached the House floor earlier this month has been the inclusion in a 2017 bill sponsored by Wilson of a “statute of repose” clause.

That 2017 bill extended the age by which an adult must make a child sex abuse claim from 25 up to 38. After committee amendments, the bill also referred to a statute of repose.

Statutes of repose generally include stricter limitations against claims after a certain period of time than a statute of limitation and are typically applied in building construction or product liability cases, not in child sex abuse cases.

Wilson was stunned on the House floor earlier this month when Majority Leader Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) introduced an amendment that would strike the retroactivity clause based on the statute of repose.

The amendment failed by a 135-3 vote, but Wilson said he still felt deceived by the addition of the language into the bill that he had negotiated with people on all sides of the aisle, including the Catholic Church.

Wilson said keeping the statute of repose intact would tie the hands of future legislatures, something not typically done when passing bills.

After digging around the last couple weeks, Wilson said he still has no answer about how the language was included in the 2017 measure before final passage.

“I don’t want my legacy on that 2017 bill to be that we protected this church, and protected the wrong-doers and the predators, infinitum,” Wilson said. “That they’d never have to pay for anything they’d done in the past.”

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said he was not going to consider the statute of repose language to be limiting on any actions of the committee this legislative session.

The bill was opposed by Cary Silverman, speaking for the American Tort Reform Association. Silverman said the association opposes bills that get rid of statute of limitations altogether.

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