The Biggest Deterrent to Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

The Atlantic

June 26, 2019

By Hannah Giorgis

In the United States, about one-third of child-sexual-abuse victims come forward with their allegations before adulthood. Another third disclose far later in life—the median age is 52—and the rest never reveal their past trauma at all. In recent years, many children’s advocates have looked to shift these low reporting numbers (and correspondingly low rates of prosecution) by addressing a legal hurdle that lies in the way of many victims seeking court-based justice: the statute of limitations.

Speaking yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the lawyer Kathryn Robb, who serves as the executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, noted a clear gap between lawmakers’ understanding of abuse and their visions of justice. “There’s a lot of ignorance about the nature of trauma, why victims don’t disclose, and the idiocy of statutes of limitations, their arbitrary unfairness,” Robb said. “That’s a bit of a frustration, just trying to educate legislative leaders and governors across the [country].”

As of this year, 38 states (as well as the District of Columbia) are reconsidering their statute of limitations for sexual-abuse cases. Robb and her fellow panel speaker Marci Hamilton—the founder, CEO, and academic director of CHILD USA—spent 16 years attempting to persuade New York state legislators to pass laws that would lift restrictions on victims who come forward with allegations later in life. In New York, the criminal statute of limitations for felony sexual abuse of a minor has been extended to age 28; for misdemeanors, survivors can come forward until they reach the age of 25. For civil cases—against people and institutions—the statute of limitations now extends to age 55.

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