More advocacy for sex abuse victims

MARSHALL – A little less than a year after Jacob’s Law went into effect requiring both parents to be notified in cases where a child is the victim of physical abuse or sexual assault, legislation that would make it easier for Minnesotans who were sexually abused as children to bring civil lawsuits against their abuser or the institution that facilitated the abuse has been introduced at the state Capitol.

The Minnesota Child Victims Act would remove the current statute of limitations that requires victims to file lawsuit within six years of their 18th birthday. If the bill is passed into law, victims could file a lawsuit at any time no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

The legislation is supported by numerous child abuse victim advocate organizations, including the National Center for Victims of Crime, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Minnesota Alliance on Crime, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the National Child Protection Training Center.

Kathleen Blatz, a former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, told the Independent on Thursday that Minnesota has taken a step backward when it comes to protecting young victims of sexual abuse.

Blatz was a judge in 1989 when the original statute passed in Minnesota that said people had six years from the time they knew or had reason to know injury was caused by sexual abuse. In 1996, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted that statute to mean that a child who is sexually abused immediately knows they are injured and has only until their 24th birthday to file a lawsuit. That law, she says, is antiquated and needs to change.

“Minnesota, instead of being on the forefront of giving a voice to victims in the court system, is behind now,” said Blatz. “This law has virtually capped any lawsuits from going forward in Minnesota. Victims just don’t really ever get justice in the courts. Oftentimes, the victims, when they get older, have a lot of issues with relationships and have to deal with what happened to them as children.”

Rep. Steve Simon, a DFLer from St. Louis Park, authored the legislation. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Blatz said she is confident the bill will be received with strong bipartisan support. Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said efforts are under way to get Republican co-sponsors for the bill.

“I feel bad that Minnesota law does not protect children,” said Blatz, who served as a Republican legislator from 1979-1993 before becoming a trial judge. “The idea they have to go to trial about when they knew versus their injuries is the wrong focus. The law needs to be fixed. I do think it will enjoy bipartisan support; it’s a bipartisan issue.”

Dion said four states – Alaska, Delaware, Florida and Maine – have eliminated their civil statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, thus allowing victims to seek justice at any time from the moment the law was enacted, and three others – California, Delaware and Hawaii – have created a civil window, allowing child sex abuse lawsuits to be filed no matter how long ago the abuse occurred, as long as the file date is within the window. This bill, he said, would be retroactive in nature and open up a window for past cases of sexual abuse to be heard.

“That’s very important, because we know victims can take decades before they’re ready to discuss the abuse, or they don’t recognize they were harmed, or just weren’t strong enough to come forward,” Dion said. “When they do, we often find the perpetrator is still alive and molesting kids. Pedophiles don’t retire. They’re not going to stop until we make them stop.”

Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Protection Training Center, said the impact of victimization goes on for years and carries with it a negative impact that can go beyond one’s emotions or ability to carry out relationships in their adult years.

“The impact includes mental and physical health issues,” she said. “There is support out there that says there are very close correlations between victimization and heart disease, lung disease and other long-term medical issues.”

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 10 percent of Minnesotans were sexually abused as children and one in two know someone who was sexually abused as a child.