The Three-front War on Child Sex Abuse: Law, Society, and the Public

By Marci A. Hamilton
Verdict Justia
August 6, 2019

On August 14, 2019, the New York Child Victims Act will open a window for the victims of child sex abuse—reviving the expired civil statutes of limitations (SOLs) for one year. This isn’t the best window in the United States, but it is the most hard-fought. It took a total of 16 years, a series of lawmakers, and an army of advocates and survivors to pull New York up from being one of the worst states in the country for child sex abuse victims to being in the top third as the “State Civil SOL Ranking” graphic here shows.

Lest anyone think that this SOL reform victory is the end of the line for improving the plight of child sex victims in New York or anywhere else, let me explain how massive this project is. This is a war on three fronts: we need legal reform, civil society reform, and more effective public education.

Reform the Laws

SOL reform is necessary legal reform to end child sex abuse, because it empowers the victims, but it is not sufficient. It needs to be a priority because it is the most effective way to arm victims against the perpetrators, institutions, and society that let the abuse happen. We can’t win this war without giving real weapons to the victims, and civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution are powerful. This is a banner year for SOL reform, with many states reviving expired civil SOLs for the victims, as listed here. Despite recent advances, however, most states could improve their child sex abuse SOLs.

For example, New York still has work to do on its criminal SOLs, including the ones for child sex trafficking, as you can see here in the “State Criminal SOL Ranking” and here in the “Child Sex Trafficking State Criminal Statutes of Limitations” graphic.

Yet not every victim will have someone to sue under the windows, and many have no criminal prosecution options due to expired SOLs (and criminal SOLs can’t be revived). What do we do about the victims who want to tell their story, but will have no legal process available? If they can’t a wield sword, we can at least give them a shield.

If they do step forward, they are at risk of having their perpetrators and the others who covered up the abuse sue them for libel, slander, or defamation. These laws need to be amended so that if a perpetrator or aider and abettor sues a child sex abuse victim after they disclose the abuse, and the victim proves the abuse by a preponderance, the defendants have to pay treble damages to the victim for the abuse. In other words, going after your own victim should result in a severe penalty, as I discussed here. It’s all about flipping the balance of power.

Once the victims are empowered through the law, the next wave of legal reform will be informed by the facts learned. The civil lawsuits teach law enforcement, courts, and the public the facts that were otherwise locked inside the files of institutions or stored in the memories of others. They also spur prosecutors to look more deeply into the crimes, which have been so easy to ignore until now.

Reform Civil Society

Legal reform can only accomplish so much, however. It is time to enlist civil society to prevent child sex abuse and that means bringing to the table powerful people, industries, and organizations. The leader in risk and harm prevention is, yes, the insurance industry. As I said here, this industry is best-situated to institute state-of-the-art child protection audits of youth-serving organizations.

It is a simple fact: No organization, private or public, will solve this problem by itself or maintain the highest standards without external pressure beyond the law—like the threat of losing liability insurance coverage. They are too busy trying to be the best at what they are in the first place.

Educate the Public

We will not turn the corner on child sex abuse without enlisting all of society. Adults need to understand two things: child sex abuse is prevalent, it’s common, and while they may seem sophisticated and even look like miniature adults, children are in fact radically vulnerable. And when I say, “children,” I mean young people under age 18. An adult won’t take action to protect someone under 18 if they think abuse is rare or they overestimate the capacity of the individual. If you saw a young child wandering into the street, you would run to stop her, wouldn’t you? The same needs to happen when adults see the signs of sex abuse—whether the victim is 3 or 16.

This dual message—prevalence and radical vulnerability—needs to permeate the culture. While training is feasible in many contexts, and documentaries go a long way to educate those who watch them, and schools should educate children, these two core messages need to be taken to the people and delivered by cultural icons. We need our most popular sports figures and celebrities to step up in the United States for the truth to sink in.

It is not enough to talk about what the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the schools, or the family courts need to do to end child sex abuse. This is a three-front war, and it’s time to enlist everyone on the side of the victims.








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