By Barb Ickes
The way Natalie Long sees it, the rape of a child is like a murder.
“Sexual abuse takes the soul of a child,” the Rock Island woman said. “It takes away your innocence and how you view the world. It challenges every foundation you have — everything you believed in and trusted.”
Because of the lasting and life-changing trauma of being sexually abused as a child, Long regards many states’ time limits for prosecuting offenders a secondary form of abuse. She wants to change that and has begun her appeal against such statutes of limitations in Iowa and Illinois.
Long and Rock Island lawyer Arthur Winstein have launched a new foundation with a goal of changing many states’ statutes of limitations for sexual abuse against minors, dubbed S.A.A.M. (saamfoundation.org).
“Our argument is that there is not enough time to come to terms with, cope and face your abuser within these time frames,” Long said, citing Iowa’s 10-year limit as an example of a too-short statute. “We had a 72-year-old woman come to us who’d been keeping it to herself for 60 years.”
While Long would like to see limits lifted entirely, making it possible to prosecute perpetrators indefinitely, Winstein is taking a more lawyerly approach.
“A 30-year statute of limitations isn’t unreasonable,” he said. “I don’t know that you’d find a victim that would put a date on it, though.”
Added Long, “It is unfathomable to me they (perpetrators) sweat it out for 10 years and then never have to worry again. Then there’s me. No day comes that I get to say, ‘Whew! I’m done with that!’ ”
The duo launched the mission in April, beginning with the Iowa Senate in Des Moines.
“We got a chance to meet privately, very privately, with the Democratic Caucus, to get our foot in the door,” Winstein said. “We talked about what the bill might look like, and they invited us to come back in January.”
Iowa appears to be more manageable ground for change, given the comparatively standard set of limitations. For instance, in cases of first, second and third-degree sexual abuse, a suspect must be prosecuted with 10 years of the victim turning 18. The same law applies in cases of incest.
“If you’re raped as a child in Iowa, but you haven’t come to terms with it by the age of 28, that guy goes free forever,” Winstein said.
But Scott County Attorney Mike Walton pointed out that it wasn’t long ago, about a decade, when statutes of limitations were even shorter for sex crimes against kids. Until the latest extensions, he said, Iowa treated the cases the same as most other crimes, which was to assign a 3-year cutoff for prosecution. Murder is the only crime that has no statutory limit.
“I don’t see it as highly controversial to extend it,” Walton said. “Defense attorneys would argue that it’s unfair. I certainly understand the policy behind a statute of limitations. At some point, it’s difficult to prosecute but also to defend.”
Walton said he can recall very few instances, during 25 years as a prosecutor, in which a case was not brought against a possible perpetrator because of time running out.
“We haven’t had a lot of cases barred by the statute,” he said. “The clergy allegations would be one (tried in civil court instead). The County Attorneys’ Association would look at it (a proposed extension). I’m only looking at it for Scott County. Statewide, it might be different.”
The law is definitely different in Illinois, where the general limit is 20 years. However, there are exceptions and extensions.
“It gets pretty complicated when you look at all the charges involving children,” Rock Island County State’s Attorney John McGehee warned. “I don’t know what the rationale was. As prosecutors, we have to look at the specific charge to see what statutes might apply.”
While there is room for improvement in Illinois’ limits, he said, his one year in office has revealed no specific failures.
“No one in the last year has said, ‘Listen, we have a problem with the statute of limitations,’ ” he added. “There’s always going to be that case … when you’d like to prosecute somebody for something they did a long time ago.”
Long wants to take things another step, saying that S.A.A.M. will come up with a way to prosecute parents and other adults for knowing a child is being sexually abused and failing to report it. Recent data, provided by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, states that 82 percent of reports of sex abuse of children are made by professionals who are legally required to report such crimes, primarily: police, nurses, school social workers, and mental health and other social service staff.
“As a child, you don’t have these chances,” Long said. “I didn’t know to walk into a resource center. We rely on adults.”