Support Alabama bill to increase the period when a sexual abuse survivor can sue

The Alabama State House

This originally appeared on Feb. 18, 2022

If you have been, or are, experiencing sexual assault, contact Rainn or Darkness to Light for help.

Alabama is actively participating in child abuse. I am not OK with this. Who would be?

One in four girls and one in 13 boys will sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday. Many will be repeatedly sexually assaulted.

The state of Alabama has been fine with some of those children, now adults, having no recourse for years. Child USA, a national thinktank for child protection, put Alabama at the top of the list as the worst for civil laws, among other critical blunders.

In 1985, Alabama eliminated its statute of limitations for many sex crimes against children (people under the age of 16).This put Alabama near the forefront of child sex abuse criminal laws.

You read that correctly: Alabama was at the forefront of something. After being on so many Worst Lists, we did something well.

Wait. Not so fast.

What the state did not do is to allow children abused before 1985 to bring civil suits. Why do we care? The average age that people report childhood sexual assault is 52 years old.

Let me stop you before you even ask the question: Why do they wait so long? Many, many reasons – not the least of which it is re-traumatizing to talk about what happened. As an aside, if grown women can’t speak out because of fear (also see Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein and too many others to name here) then how can we expect children to?

Also thank you for blaming the victim. Now where was I?

Alabama, we are not talking about a child falling off of playground equipment or a minor boo boo. This is the rape, sodomy and sexual assault of our children.

These adult survivors are left with no recourse. They need champions and bipartisan support. They cannot press civil charges and cannot hold people accountable. They can only hope for legislative reform.

“At least,” one survivor told me, “we could have that.”

“At least” is where we are right now with survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Birmingham’s Merika Coleman is sponsoring a bill, introduced Feb. 16, that would fix some of this problem (HB370). The bill would give survivors, who were under the age of 19 at the time of the assault, decades more time in which to file a lawsuit against their attackers. The bill raises that time period from six to 36 years – essentially giving someone up to age 55 the ability to file suit.

Also known as look back windows or look back laws, these laws – common in other states – allow a set time for those children abused before 1985 to bring civil suits.

Right now, one survivor told me, the law speaks clearly. “What happened to me does not matter. It’s too late. You have to live with it. My pain does not matter.”

I spoke with many survivors of childhood sexual assault (men and women) and it’s clear: When it comes to laws, Alabama is way in the back of the class on this.

It’s child abuse, plain and simple.

Kathryn Robb, a survivor who was abused by a family members for eight years, is

Executive Director of Child US Advocacy and puts it in these easy-to-understand terms:

“If someone came up to a child with a bat and hit them over the head several times and this kid was in a coma for years, would we say to that kid, ‘Well, you should have come out of the coma, awoken and told someone.’”

Yet Alabama expects that to happen. Through policy and action, in Alabama we hurt our children again and again and again. This lowers my confidence in our legislature to do the right thing.

This problem crosses all barriers: class, race, religion, politics – you name it. When we restrict survivors from speaking we ultimately side with perpetrators who remain hidden and protected.

This should be a common sense law. Yet Alabama won’t surprise me if it decides, once again, to hurt our children.

Sadly, Robb confirmed my fears. In Alabama, she said, “It’s going to be an uphill battle.”

A Facebook Group, Alabama Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault, was created for survivors to ban together to share their stories and help one another.

If the Alabama legislature does not stand on the side of its children then it sends a booming, reverberating statement that they just don’t matter. If you don’t stand with children and survivors of childhood sexual assault you are squarely on the side of predators.

Who would say no to protecting children? Institutions. Churches, schools, businesses. They can hide predators because there is no accountability for them. Protecting their reputations is more important than protecting our children and adult survivors.

If common human decency doesn’t move you – and let’s face it, money screams loudly in this state – then let’s talk about the economic cost. People who are sexually abused and assaulted carry that shame, fear and trauma into adulthood. The economic impact on the workforce is significant.

Don’t kid yourself if you think that there is no one in your workplace who has been a victim of childhood sexual assault or sexual assault. Chances are if you look up you will see someone who is a survivor.

Those survivors are cheated out of a lifetime of normal, productive earning potential and work-life experience. They have memory and focus issues, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, eating and sleeping disorders, unemployment issues. This burdens Alabama’s educational and social services system, penal system, policing and educational system.

Shouldn’t survivors be due compensation for having been cheated out of that time? Also, should the State of Alabama continue to shoulder the burden of these suits?

We need to shift the burden and cost of this back to predators and not take this on as a state. If Alabama wants to be a place businesses want to locate, this must be addressed.

The sad truth is a very small percentage of people who commit a sexual assault crime will ever see prison. Studies quoted by RAINN show that only 25 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will ever be jailed for their crimes. This number is even lower for abusers of children. Our criminal justice system does not give survivors the tools they need to see justice.

If a district attorney cannot get a conviction, that costs Alabama time and money. This bill would help alleviate human suffering and economic waste. Additionally, if more cases went to civil suits, discovery alone might help some survivors uncover the truth. Few people would risk going to jail under the penalty of perjury.

What can you do to help?

Reach out to your lawmaker and ask questions. Demand our lawmakers take action and help those who are suffering. Encourage them to vote favorably for HB358.

This is a civil rights movement for children and adult survivors. Across the country a paradigm shift is happening with these laws and Alabama is left behind. 27 states – including Southern states – are passing such revival legislation (which includes window legislation). Three have a permanent window. And 17 have completely eliminated the statute of limitations on civil suits.

Alabama, let’s move to the front of the class.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist from Birmingham. She is a Senior Instructor of Journalism and Creative Media at The University of Alabama.

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