Yesterday in Annapolis, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard presentations by advocates for the reform of Maryland’s statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual assault. I attended the hearing with my paralegal, Mary Beth Diaz, to support the survivors in their quest to achieve transparency, healing, and justice. We met one of our clients there, David Lorenz, the Maryland State Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
What’s The Issue With Maryland’s Current Statue Of Limitations?
Simply put, a child victim of sexual abuse in Maryland has until the age of 38 to bring a claim. There was discussion on whether the language in the existing statute setting an absolute limit on the protections afforded perpetrators is tantamount to a “statute of repose” which imparts a “vested right” in the defendants which cannot be taken away legislatively. (It’s more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this blog, that’s the essence of it).
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What Happened At The Hearing?
Four survivor advocates made presentations to the committee – each outstanding in her own right. Claudia Remington, Executive Director, Maryland State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect & Co-Backbone Maryland Essentials for Childhood framed the issues for the panel. She was accompanied by Katherine Robb, Executive Director of CHILD USAdvocacy; Kathleen Hoke, Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and Director of Network for Public Health Law Eastern Region; and Wendy Lane, MD, Prof. of Epidemiology and Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. These women deserve to have their names mentioned prominently and their activism recognized.
The goal of the presentations was to explain to the Senate Committee – whose members seemed genuinely interested and engaged in learning (a refreshing change from what we see in Washington these days) – about both the legal and psychological issues surrounding institutional betrayal of children. The term institutional betrayal refers to wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by people – such as sexual assault — committed within the context of the institution.
They explained to the panel the concept of Institutional DARVO. Institutional DARVO occurs when DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender) is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when police charge rape victims with lying. The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim’s role and turns the true victim — or the whistleblower — into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser for being the perpetrator of a false accusation.
What Factors Are At Play In Requesting Reform on Marylands Statue of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse Survivors?
Now, enter a most critical component: the impact of sexual trauma causing disintegration of body, mind, and identity; chaos, exhaustion, and confusion, leading to the body’s suppression of memory. Delayed disclosure attendant to trauma is common to survivors of child sex abuse where people wait for years, often well into adulthood, before telling anyone they were abused. Compelling data reveals that more survivors first disclosed their abuse between ages of 50 and 70 compared to any other age group. (Source: CHILD USA’s Data on those abused in Boy Scouts of America). Victims of this “toxic stress” frequently succumb to drug and alcohol abuse; mental health disorders; there is an increased prevalence of teenage pregnancy; physical health problems, obesity, and eating disorders. It is not surprising that children who are sexually abused are at significantly greater risk for later post-traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms depression and suicide.
And of course, all of this results in higher healthcare costs to the system. Who should bear these costs – taxpayers or the perpetrators? That’s a no-brainer, but I digress.
What Points Did The Hearing Hope to Get Across to Legislature?
Legislators must fully understand that the statute of limitations must fit the injury (as many statutes of limitations do). The “discovery” rule in medical malpractice cases reflects the reality that the evidence of harm may not occur until one “discovers” the injury, which may occur more than three years after the negligent act occurs.
Similarly, here, the evidence of child sexual assault may not become “discovered” until the human brain allows it to be. Decades later. This is proven science.
For victims of child sex abuse, it is remarkable, frankly, that they disclose abuse at all, regardless of their age. Many take the secret of sexual abuse to their death. Data from the Department of Justice suggests that 86% of child sexual abuse goes unreported altogether. Again, though, when victims of child sex abuse do report, a high percentage of them delay disclosure well into adulthood.
According to the Child USA Fact Sheet, the delay in disclosing child sex abuse happens for a variety of complex and overlapping reasons that transcend the body’s internal protections. “Child victims face many barriers that prevent disclosure. Among other barriers, children often lack the knowledge needed to recognize sexual abuse, lack the ability to articulate that they’ve been abused, don’t have an adult they can disclose their abuse to, don’t have opportunities to disclose abuse, and aren’t believed when they try to disclose. Trauma that results from the abuse, power differentials between the child victim and adult perpetrator, and institutional power dynamics all impact the delay.” https://childusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delayed-Disclosure-Factsheet-2020.pdf
Why Is Amending Maryland’s Statue of Limitations So Important?
Abuse thrives on denial and lack of accountability. The lack of accountability exacerbates existing harms and inflicts additional trauma on these child sexual abuse survivors. We cannot let the perpetrators of these crimes benefit from the fear they instilled in their victims. As the question was raised to Senate Panel yesterday: Why should perpetrators be protected by the passage of time when survivors suffer in perpetuity? We cannot bury our children alive in a tomb of silence and shame.
Maryland must join the national civil rights movement for children. We need to stand alongside the 24 other states that have passed revival or window lookback laws for expired civil claims against the perpetrator and institutional betrayers. Our children deserve no less than what the law allows – access to justice with laws that recognize the nature of the harm and the ability of survivors to gather the evidence to present their case.
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