DES MOINES, Iowa – When someone is the victim of a sexual assault, most people would assume that the law is, and always will be, squarely on their side.
That’s certainly the case in many states, where the trend has been to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal charges or civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse.
Many states have also extended the number of years that victims of childhood sexual abuse can file civil suits against their molesters.
But the issue remains frustratingly cloudy in Iowa, and the state’s Supreme Court is currently sorting it out.
The court in early April heard oral arguments in the case of Jane Doe vs. the New London school district, which centers on teacher Gina Sisk, who allegedly sexually abused students in both New London and Keokuk school districts, the Associated Press reports.
A woman using the pseudonym “Jane Doe”, a former student in the New London district, filed a lawsuit against Sisk for alleged sexual abuse, and against the district for its alleged failure to protect her from the assaults.
Steven Ort, the attorney representing the school district, asked a district court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming it was filed beyond the state’s 10-year statute of limitations. Jane Doe graduated from high school in 2004 and moved away from New London.
“Without making light or diminishing in any way what happened to Jane Doe, it does not change the fact that all events occurred almost and in many instances more than 10 years ago,” Ort told The Republic. “There is a statute of limitations in Iowa.”
Roxanne Conlin, the attorney representing Jane Doe, argued the statute of limitations clock didn’t start ticking until her client realized during counseling sessions in 2011 that her mental issues were the result of her six-year relationship with the teacher, the Associated Press reports.
Conlin argued for the application of the “discovery rule,” which gives victims up to four years to file a lawsuit after they realize they have suffered personal harm.
“The victim, Jane Doe, always knew that there had been sex between her and Gina Sisk,” Conlin said, according to the AP. “What she did not know is that it caused her harm. And that is what she must know. She has to know she has a cause of action.”
District Judge Cynthia Danielson in February 2013 denied Ort’s request to dismiss the case, but Ort appealed her decision to the state Supreme Court.
The decision on the appeal, due any day, is being closely reviewed for any new legal precedents it might set.
The AP reports “court observers believe the Supreme Court’s decision could have a statewide affect on Iowa’s Municipal Tort Claims Act,” specifically in regard to how the statute of limitations for such cases is applied.
States have been favoring victims
If the decision favors the alleged victim, it would put Iowa in line with many other states, according to Mary Jo McGrath, a California-based attorney with more than two decades of experience in educator sexual abuse cases.
McGrath told EAGnews that many states have specifically crafted laws to allow young sexual abuse victims more time to bring a civil action because of the psychology involved in such cases.
In a number of states, the statute of limitations for educator sexual abuse cases doesn’t start until the victim turns 21, or they realize they’ve been injured by their traumatic experience.
“It fits with the science, the psychology … that says people have difficulty” connecting their abuse with mental issues that develop later, she said.
“It’s classic that people suppress it until they are at a level they can deal with it,” McGrath said. “That’s why the law has changed in most places … to allow for the extended timeline.
Terri Miller, president of the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, believes it makes little sense to have any statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases at all. In most cases, victims have “been exploited to believe what happened to them is normal or special,” and it can take years for them to realize otherwise.
“It’s my opinion there should not be a statute of limitations at all for child sexual abuse … because the victims don’t understand” fully how they’ve been wronged until years later, she said.
Jane Doe was not the only former student to file a lawsuit in response to Sisk’s alleged actions. Jane Doe 2, a former student in the Keokuk school district, filed suit against Sisk for the alleged assaults, and against the district and former Keokuk High School Principal Michelle Lukavsky for failing to protect her.
Sisk worked in the Keokuk district after resigning her job in the New London district.
It’s interesting to note that Sisk no longer has a personal stake in any of the legal proceedings. She was never charged with any crime, and both Jane Does have settled out of court with her, thereby removing her from the ongoing lawsuits.
That leaves only the school districts and one principal as defendants in the two cases. And the New London case could soon be dismissed if the Supreme Court agrees that the 10-year limit on filing the lawsuit should be applied.
Both the New London and Keokuk cases detail a similar pattern of conduct by Sisk that evolves from typical pedophile grooming practices, ranging from excessive praise and attention, personal tutoring and school-related overnight trips to “fondling on team busses, threats of reprisal, actual physical violence, intimidation and remorse,” the AP reports.
Court documents allege Sisk forced the girls to lie about their relationships with her, and school officials did very little to investigate rumors of misconduct. In one incident, for example, the New London Jane Doe was called to the principal’s office to discuss the nature of her relationship with Sisk, but the teacher intercepted her in the hallway and told the teen to deny any wrongdoing, according to the news service.
With allegations swirling, Sisk left New London schools in 2006 and took a job with Keokuk schools. Jane Doe 2 alleges the teacher continued with her insidious behavior in that district.
Jane Doe 2 claims she told principal Lukavsky of her allegations against Sisk in May 2009, but he failed to properly investigate them. Instead, Lukavsky and school officials allegedly “permitted her to retract her allegations because of defendant Sisk’s threats (against her). …
“They also required (the student) to sign a document indicating her allegations were ‘a lie’ without conducting an investigation into the allegations,” according to court documents cited by the AP.
Conlin says Jane Doe 2 recanted her allegations because Sisk sent her a text message telling her to lie to school officials and police.
The Keokuk School District put Sisk on paid leave after the first lawsuit against New London schools was filed in 2012. Sisk raked in at least $75,000 before resigning at the end of the 2012-13 school year, Tri States Public Radioreports.
The case against Keokuk schools and Lukavsky moves toward a jury trial set for September in South Lee County. The same two attorneys involved in the New London case – Conlin and Ort – are also going head-to-head in the Keokuk case.
As a side note, Sisk was attacked at her home by an unknown assailant March 12, 2013 and was transported to the hospital, where she was treated and released. That case remains unsolved.