House backs bill dropping deadline for child physical abuse claims

VTDigger [Montpelier VT]

April 29, 2021

By Kevin O'Connor

The Vermont House has joined the Senate in advancing a bill to repeal the statute of limitations for civil actions based on childhood physical abuse.

In a voice vote Thursday, House members offered near unanimous support for S.99, which the Senate approved 29-0 earlier this month.

“For a variety of reasons related to the trauma of being a victim of child abuse, it is extremely difficult for the victim to file the action before turning 21,” Rep. Felisha Leffler, R-Enosburg Falls, told her House colleagues. “As a result, these victims are permanently barred from ever being compensated for what in many cases are horrendous injuries.”

The Legislature, responding to a decadeslong Vermont Catholic priest misconduct scandal, two years ago repealed the deadline for introducing civil actions involving child sexual abuse.

But that change to allow accusers to go to court at any time pertains only to molestation and not other abuse, which currently must be reported within three years upon realization it caused personal harm.

That, in turn, has left many Vermont abuse survivors without means of recourse.

Former residents of the now-closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, which housed more than 13,000 children from 1854 to 1974, were shouted at, slapped and shut in closets, according to a recent report from a team of local and state police and prosecutors.

In addition, Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster is the subject of a Vermont Agency of Education investigation into alleged sexual and physical abuse at the private residential school.

The bill would allow people to file civil lawsuits at any time.

“We heard testimony that the average age of a person coming forward with their experience of abuse is 51 years old,” Leffler said, speaking on behalf of fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee. “Under current law that is 30 years too late for any accountability, and that is what we are looking to change.”

A final vote is expected as early as Friday.