Wichita Eagle [Wichita KS]
June 16, 2023
By Bob Lewis
On June 25, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly ceremonially signed S.B. 2127, a bill intended to advance the cause of justice for victims of child sex abuse. This legislation received unanimous support in both chambers thanks to the tireless advocacy of survivors. As a state representative and attorney who has represented survivors of child sex abuse and human trafficking for over a decade, I was one of the legislators who pushed for the bill’s passage. But while it was certainly a step in the right direction, there is more to do to protect our kids from sex abuse and provide justice to those who survive.
Child sex abuse is a persistent and ever-present societal plague. Since 2002, when The Boston Globe shined a spotlight on abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, the nation has witnessed a steady stream of revelations of this abuse in other institutions and regions of the country, from USA Gymnastics to public universities, the Boy Scouts and major hospitals. A survey of several studies by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Child USA concluded that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys are victims of sexual abuse — approximately 3.7 million children every year.
Kansas is not immune to this national scourge. In January, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation released a scathing report on abuse in the four primary Catholic dioceses in Kansas. Following a four-year investigation, the KBI concluded that 188 clergy members had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. It further chronicled the church’s practice of laundering the accused priests through a treatment facility and then assigning them to another parish, where they abused more children.
In my practice, I have received innumerable phone calls from adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Often, I am the first person they have told. In most cases, it took decades for them to come sufficiently to terms with the abuse to talk about what happened to them as a child, a phenomenon known as “delayed disclosure.”
They ask me to give them a voice and obtain justice.
Every survivor is different, but virtually all lose agency — that is, the ability to think clearly, to discern right from wrong and to act without the overhang of trauma. The abuser is virtually always significantly older, a role model, a person of authority. The abuser grooms the victim with gift-giving, telling her how special she is, how much the abuser cares for and even loves her and only wants the best for her. These are, of course, all lies. But the child, though sensing wrong, doesn’t have the experience nor the maturity to see through the lies.
Confused, with intense feelings of shame and guilt, victims shut down emotionally and often turn to drugs or other unhealthy behaviors to deaden the pain. A study of Boy Scout survivors concluded that because of this trauma, 51% disclosed their abuse at or after age 50 and only 4% before age 30. Most of my survivor-clients are between 40 and 70.
STATE, VICTIMS’ AGE MATTER
When calls come in, whether I can help depends on a key fact: in what state the abuse occurred. In recent years, more than half the states in the nation, recognizing the phenomenon of delayed disclosure, have enacted laws that eliminate or substantially extend the statute of limitations for these claims, which before reform usually runs to the victim’s 21st birthday. If the abuse occurred in a state that has reformed its statute of limitations, justice is likely. If in a non- reformed state, I’m rarely able to help the victim.
So where does Kansas stand? The new law extends the civil statute of limitations from a victim’s 21st birthday to the 31st. That’s progress but, as I noted, only 4% of X survivors disclose by the age of 30, and most don’t come forward until reaching their 40s, 50s or 60s. So most survivors abused in Kansas are still left without a remedy.
The new law also lacks retroactivity and a “look-back window,” key provisions in most other states’ reform measures. Retroactivity is needed to revive claims by anyone over 21 on July 1, when the new law goes into effect, because those claims have lapsed under the old law. A look-back window is needed to give those older than the new law’s cutoff age (now 31) a short window of time — usually one or two years — to bring their claims. In brief, the new law affords justice to very few survivors and allows far too many perpetrators to avoid accountability by running out the clock.
Kansas child sex abuse survivors deserve justice. That can happen only if Kansas amends the new law to fill in these gaps. Only then will the veil of secrecy be fully pulled back, those responsible held to account and survivors given back their agency.
In the next legislative session, I will be working with survivors, my legislative colleagues and the Kelly administration to amend the new law and give survivors the justice they deserve.
Bob Lewis is a Garden City attorney. He represents the 123rd District in the Kansas House of Representatives.