Child Victims Act: Justice for victims, protection for children
By Julie Lassa
The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.
One of the most important roles of government is to protect people who are vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment, and there are none more vulnerable than children who are sexually abused by adults. Unfortunately, the tragic truth is that very few perpetrators of child sexual abuse are ever brought to justice. One of the factors that perpetrators can hide behind is our state’s civil statute of limitations that puts an arbitrary deadline on when people abused as children can have their day in court.
Statutes of limitations are a particular problem when it comes to childhood sexual abuse. Most sexually abused children are molested by family members or authority figures, and the pressure is strong not to disrupt their own home, school or church. As adults, it may take victims years to come to grips with their experience and build the courage they need to identify their abuser and begin civil or criminal action. By the time they’re ready to do so, the statutes of limitations may have expired; it may be too late for justice to be done.
These arbitrary deadlines do more than just rob child sexual abuse victims of their day in court. They endanger every child in our community, because they decrease the likelihood that people who prey sexually on children will be identified and stopped. And we know that pedophiles, if given the opportunity, will continue to seek out new victims. Research has shown that these child molesters will have 80 to 100 victims or more during a lifetime and will continue to victimize children well into their 60s and beyond.
How big is the problem? In Wisconsin, one in five kids will be sexually abused by age 18. We also know that 90 percent of child sexual abuse is never reported to law enforcement authorities; 30 percent of victims never tell anyone. As a result, the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect estimates that only about 3 percent of child molesters are ever caught. That raises the specter of hundreds of pedophiles walking the streets of Wisconsin towns, safe in the knowledge that they are protected by the law from ever being held accountable for their crimes.
That is why I will once again be introducing the Child Victims Act. It removes the civil statute of limitations entirely, so pedophiles would no longer be protected by a legal “home free” date from facing their victims in court. It would also provide a two year window in which a person who is currently arbitrarily barred from bringing a suit would be allowed to bring their charges forward. The bill is supported by law enforcement and numerous child abuse and sexual assault prevention groups.
There have been objections raised to the Child Victims Act by people who worry that creating a window for retroactive suits will encourage false claims, or that the accused will have difficulty defending themselves against charges for an act that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago. But the experience of other states that have similar laws has been that the number of false claims amounts to just a handful and that, even after many years, there is evidence in many cases that supports the victim’s claims.
In California, where a similar time window for retroactive suits was enacted, 300 previously unknown child sex abusers were identified as a result. The Child Victims Act will enable victims of sexual abuse to have their day in court and hold more offenders accountable for their actions, preventing them from preying on other innocent children. For the sake of these defenseless victims, we should pass this legislation now.
— Lassa, D-Stevens Point, represents Wisconsin’s 24th Senate District.
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