OMNIA Q&A: Statute of Limitations Reform

Marci Hamilton, Professor of Practice in Political Science and Fox Family Pavilion Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion, discusses how the newly formed Global Statute of Limitations Reform Task Force will work to bring justice to victims of child sexual abuse.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

By Duyen Nguyen

Marci Hamilton, Professor of Practice in Political Science and Fox Family Pavilion Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion, with the First Lady of Sierra Leone at the World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Violence.

A leading expert on child sex abuse statutes of limitations, Marci Hamilton has dedicated her career to bringing justice to victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation. She is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a non-profit think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to prevent child sexual abuse, exploitation, and neglect. A major focus of the organization’s mission is reforming the statutes of limitations (SOLs) that define when victims can pursue legal action. Hamilton, who is a Professor of Practice in Political Science, is also the co-chair of the recently launched Global Statute of Limitations Task Force, a collaboration between CHILD USA and the survivor-led organization the Brave Movement to eliminate statutes of limitations worldwide.

Hamilton, who is also a Fox Family Pavilion Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion, was recently invited to speak on a panel commemorating the first UN World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Violence. In an OMNIA Q&A, she discusses the progress that CHILD USA has made and shares the goals of the newly formed Global Statute of Limitations Reform Task Force.

The United Nations recently declared November 18 the World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Violence. What’s the aim of this new World Day?

The UN World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Violence was established as an annual reminder to the globe that children are frequently subjected to sexual violence—and that we need to stop it. This is the culmination of a project that was going on for about two years. Jennifer Wortham, who is a research associate at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard and who works with us at CHILD USA, was leading the charge alongside the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Maada Bio. About five or six weeks before the actual day, November 18th, the proposal finally made it to the UN, where it had to get a majority vote. And we were there the day that all the countries were voting. It was extremely exciting, and affirming for all the victims.

At the panel marking the first World Day in Rome, you spoke about how governments can prevent child sex abuse. You also introduced the Global Task Force for Statute of Limitations Reform. What are the goals of the Task Force?

The panel talking about what governments need to do included a group of experts in the field, and each one of us was talking about it from our own perspective. I focused on what we view at CHILD USA as a necessary step in order to prevent and increase healing from child sex abuse, and that is to eliminate the child sex abuse SOLs.

I was also focusing on the fact that the Global Task Force for Statute of Limitations Reform was launching that day. The Task Force is focused initially on eliminating criminal statutes of limitations. In most states in the U.S., we’re already in a very good place with respect to criminal statutes of limitations, and we’re making tremendous progress on reforming civil statutes of limitations. Around the globe, there are many countries who still have very short criminal statutes of limitations. So, we are setting up a dashboard that will have the statutes of limitations of every country in the world, and that will provide the foundation for advocates to get out there and change the laws in every country. At CHILD USA, we track every state government, and now we have developed a subdivision called CHILD GLOBAL, which is focusing on the creation of this dashboard for the entire world.

What is the current state of child sex abuse SOLs in the U.S. and globally?

There was a time when the statute of limitations for child sex abuse was two years after the event. For instance, if a five-year-old child was sexually assaulted, they had until age seven to pursue legal action. Over the course of time, that was extended to the age of majority, which is age 18 in most states, meaning a victim would have 18 plus two years. But then we kept hearing about victims who were much older, who had been shut out of court, and so incrementally in most states, the statutes have increased quite a few times over the years. But what CHILD USA is pushing for is elimination of both the criminal statute of limitations and the civil statute of limitations.

Research has shown that the victims of child sex abuse frequently take decades to come forward. If you have a statute of limitations that stops the victims in their tracks in their 20s, you’re leaving out many, many, many victims. We studied data from the Boy Scouts bankruptcy filing, and one of the things we learned is that out of the victims coming forward in that bankruptcy, half were under 50 and half were over 50. If you factor in that a third never come forward at all, that shows it’s heavily weighted to mid-years–post-50 for coming forward—and that means statutes of limitations that are under 60 are completely unfair. And that’s why we advocate for elimination.

Can you explain the importance of research to CHILD USA’s mission to eliminate SOLs?

There are so many myths and presuppositions around the world about child sex abuse and exploitation—about where it happens, about how it happens, but also about what it does to the child. The collective wisdom used to be that a child just shakes things off—if something bad happens to them in their youth, they grow up and they’ll be fine. The problem is that trauma operates in a way that shifts their outcomes in terms of psychological health, physical health, and also their success. They’re much more likely to drop out of school. They’re more likely to suffer from addiction, depression, or PTSD. The trauma introduces this universe of pain to the victim. And that’s what must stop. But it can’t stop unless you explain this to people. If you look at a sweet child, and they’re smiling, and they’re moving on through their lives, they’re going to school, you don’t see that the harm is coming later—and it is going to be evident later. The American public and the global public need to understand this is just basic science. If trauma is inflicted on a child through sexual violence, it is likely they are going to suffer, and they are going to be more of a burden on society because of mental and physical ailments, and also because they can’t contribute fully like they would have otherwise.

I really started CHILD USA because legal arguments and survivor stories alone were not making the kind of progress that was needed. We needed the facts, because if you tell lawmakers the facts and you show it to them in peer-reviewed journals, they take notice and they will take it into account. But if all you have is anecdotes they tend to either get compassion fatigue, or there’s not enough similarities between the stories to see patterns. This kind of research, the social science research standing behind the SOL reform movement is absolutely necessary. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it.

My social science team, which is led by Social Science Director AJ Ortiz, is currently studying the basics of delayed disclosure. There’s not a whole lot of science on that. How do we know what happens? When do we expect people to report? Who do they report to? It’s likely that a number of children tell a friend, or they tell someone random, but they don’t tell anybody who can make a difference—the parent or the teacher, the mandated reporter, the police. We’re also focusing our research on children in athletics because that is the largest extracurricular for children in the entire country. We’re studying the effects and the impact of child sex abuse on athletes. Both of those are very active lines of investigation.

CHILD USA is a think and do tank. We do the research, both the social science and the legal research, and then we follow up with education and activation.

How do SOLs make it difficult for victims to access justice?

One of my concerns with the #MeToo Movement encouraging people to come forward and tell their story was this: if your story is from a state where the civil and/or criminal statutes of limitations have expired, you’re at risk. Your perpetrator can sue you for defamation. You can’t prove your case because you can’t get into court.

A key focus for SOL reform is to think about how to empower the survivors to be able to come forward, so that they are in a safe space in the courts and so that the perpetrator or responsible institution are also required to show evidence that will help corroborate the case. Right now, in the vast majority of civil cases, still, victims in a lot of states are simply not able to file a lawsuit and that means they are at risk rather than being empowered against the perpetrator. Probably the best known public example of the use of defamation to threaten victims was when Bill Cosby sued several of his accusers for defamation. They were able to afford lawyers in the cases and they won, but many victims can’t afford a lawyer to defend them from such a case.

How does CHILD USA track progress in the SOL reform movement?

A window is a law that removes the statute of limitations for a short period of time—for a year or more years—and during that time, victims can sue even if their claims had already expired. Tracking the windows is a great way to see the progress in the U.S. The first window was opened in 2003 in California. We’ve now had well over 20 windows to the point that we had a banner year in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic did not help any law passage. But we’re expecting a big year in 2023, with more and more windows opening, and more states, like New York, considering wiping away the statute of limitations permanently backwards and forwards.

What are some of the obstacles to SOL reform?

All these windows are on the civil side, because you can’t revive a criminal statute of limitations. Eighty-eight percent of the states have eliminated at least some of these criminal SOLs, so we have tremendous progress on the criminal side.

But lawmakers are sometimes leery of eliminating a civil statute of limitations that was already in place. What these windows have shown is that: one, windows do not cause an avalanche of claims; two, the world doesn’t end; and three, the victims tell their stories in a safe space. The public also learns what it needs to know—it learns about the prevalence of child sex abuse, and it learns about all the different arenas where it can occur. For instance, when the Minnesota window opened, we learned about a highly respected drama group where kids were being seriously abused. In Delaware, we learned about a pediatrician who was abusing 1,000 children who came in for medical treatment. In New York, we learned about coaches we’ve never heard of before. We learned about organizations. The key to the public finally getting on board and being able to identify the risks is to educate them about prevalence. You can’t do that without these cases being in the courts.

On the civil side, the primary barrier to getting justice for the victims—the biggest opponent right now is the insurance industry. The insurance industry insured many of these organizations where abuse has occurred, and they don’t want to have to pay on all of the claims. They lobby in order to shelter themselves from being held liable. They need to cut out the cancer, which is all of the abuse that their clients permitted. They need to settle up with those victims. But going forward the most important risk prevention industry in the U.S. is insurance. They have the power to prevent child sex abuse going forward, instead of just keeping it secret.

CHILD USA is working very hard to explain to insurers and to governments that we can deter and prevent a tremendous amount of this, if the right policies go into these youth serving organizations, and insurance is in a really, really good place to do that.

The Global Task Force for Statute of Limitations Reform is a collaboration between CHILD USA and the Brave Movement, a survivor-led organization. How important is collaboration in bringing justice to victims and preventing abuse and exploitation?

The global problem of child sex abuse and exploitation is so huge, no one organization is going to solve it. It’s going to require collaboration, and so we collaborate with many nonprofits and NGOs, and especially for the Task Force, the Brave Movement. Only collaboration is going to achieve success in this field. We also collaborate with governments to help them understand what they need to understand about this, to give them the scientific basis, and also to help them understand the impact of child sex abuse on society—the cost to society runs in the billions each year. If we don’t find a way to both compensate the victims from the past, so they can take care of themselves, and prevent it in the future by creating more opportunities for reforming statutes of limitations, we’re just going to keep wasting money and resources. That hurts everybody.

With the Task Force, CHILD USA is building the dashboard. We’re the ones investigating the laws in the other countries, making sure that we get agreement from those countries that we have accurate data. We’re the ones who are getting it translated for each country into their own language as well as English. We have a subdivision, CHILD GLOBAL, that leads this. The Brave Movement is then taking all of that information and the science that backs it up, and then they will be working with advocates in different countries to get the statutes of limitations amended.

What are the next steps for both CHILD USA and the Global Task Force for Statute of Limitations Reform?

For the Task Force, we have completed collecting the SOL data for Latin America. The Latin and South American statutes of limitations are now up on our dashboard. We will be moving, starting in the New Year, to Europe. It will take us about a year to investigate Europe. We will then go to Africa. And then we’ll go to Asia. This is a five-year project at minimum. Some of these countries are going to be very difficult, but we’re hoping, as the news gets out and advocates for children learn about the project, that they will alert us if they know the statute of limitations. We’ve already heard from a couple of countries outside of Latin America, so this is starting a conversation with the world about SOLs.

For CHILD USA, we have two initiatives that are really at the center of where we are right now. In addition to advocating for SOL reform, one of them is this in-depth study of exactly when survivors report, and how they do it—and why don’t they do it?

And then we have a separate project, which is called the Gold Standard, and that is the only evidence-based system for child sex abuse prevention. We are working with insurers and with youth serving organizations to adopt it under our guidance, and we will continue to monitor it and add to it over the years. We hope within a five- to ten-year period to be able to say, “These are the most effective prevention strategies. These are good, but they’re not as necessary, and these are extras—if you can do them, great, but they are not as necessary as the other group.” The goal is to first create access to justice. And then, once we know what’s going on out there through the cases, we want to do two things. We want to make sure the victims get to court. We also want to make sure that these institutions that are sued change their policies with the Gold Standard, so that this doesn’t happen anymore.