It is possible to sue a parent for sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter whether the parent is biological, adopted, or foster. Sexual relations between adults and minors under age 18 are expressly forbidden by California state law. The state also has specific laws against incestual relations between parent and child.
The abuse of trust, coupled with the emotional vulnerability of a child, sometimes makes the abuse difficult to comprehend until many years later. If you are a survivor of childhood sexual predation by a parent, you may be entitled to a civil claim for financial compensation and financial assistance through the California Victims of Crime Board.
In addition to suing a parent, you may have a case against a foster care agency, child protective services, mandated reporters at your school, and others who turned a blind eye to known or suspected abuse rather than taking steps to protect you.
Can a Child Sue a Parent for Sexual Abuse?
Yes, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse can sue a parent for sexual and/or physical abuse, which includes:
- enticing a minor to take part in sexual activities, whether the child is aware or not
- non-contact activity like showing a child pornography or asking to see private parts
- sexual touching
- deliberately exposing oneself to a child
- photographing a child in sexual poses
- sexual intercourse
- encouraging a child to watch sex acts or behave in sexually inappropriate ways
- making overtly sexual comments or inappropriate remarks about the child’s body
- grooming the child for prostitution or commercial gain through sexual exploitation
Many survivors experience some or all of these events but remain silent for various reasons.
Child Sex Abuse Survivors Often Remain Silent Until Adulthood
Children often remain silent about their abuse for a myriad of reasons, including:
Unawareness: Particularly sheltered children may not recognize the “games” or inappropriate “intimacy” as abuse until they interact more with the world at large and come to define their experience with age and maturity.
Dependence: Even if they do realize what’s happening is wrong, they are often trapped in their situation until they have the means to leave the home.
Vulnerability: Parents exert much control over the life of a child, whether it’s physical strength, intellect, economic power over resources, expectations of basic survival needs, or the influence over social opportunities.
Fear: Children may fear disappointing the non-offending parent, fear no one will believe them, or fear facing severe repercussions from the abuser if a report is made. They may also fear “breaking up the family” or the uncertainty of who will care for them.
Denial: Victims may deny or minimize the effects of abuse until they are triggered or encounter severe psychological and emotional issues that prompt them, as adults, to look back and consider taking action.
When Is It Okay to Sue a Parent for Sexual Abuse in California?
From a procedural perspective, it’s often easier to pursue a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit once the child has reached adulthood. Since the passage of Assembly Bill 218 (AB 218), victims of childhood sexual assault can bring a claim to civil court, even if the statute of limitations had previously expired. Prior to the passage of AB 218, children had until age 28 to sue for child sexual abuse. Now, they have until age 40 to file a lawsuit. Exceptions may be granted in cases of delayed discovery, allowing up to five years from the realization of harm for a suit to be filed.
It is not absolutely necessary to wait until adulthood to sue. It is possible for a child to sue before turning 18 with the help of an appointed litigation guardian. A litigation guardian can be an existing guardian, such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling over 18, or non-offending parent. A witness to the abuse, such as a child’s teacher or a neighbor the child has confided in, can also be deemed a legal guardian.
It is also important to note that as of January 1, 2017, there is no filing deadline to press criminal charges against child predators and rapists. Criminal charges may be pursued in addition to, or in lieu of, civil claims to compensation.
What Do You Need to Prove a Parent’s Sexual Abuse?
In sexual abuse cases filed against third party entities, victims must show that the defendant knew or should have known about the abuse. When suing a parent, you won’t need to prove the abuser was on notice—that much will be obvious. Since most cases of child abuse happen behind closed doors with no other witnesses, the testimony of a child or adult survivor and confirmation of circumstantial evidence is often used in court.
Illustrating damages becomes an important facet in a child abuse case. Your legal team will likely make a case for the trauma suffered as a result of the abuse. Oftentimes, those who suffer from Rape Trauma Syndrome experience the acute phase and long-term reorganization that occurs as a result of forcible rape or attempted forcible rape. Physical manifestations of child sexual abuse may include soreness, bruising, muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, sleep pattern disturbances, and gastrointestinal illnesses. Emotional reactions can range from anxiety, fear, and anger to self-blame, depression, and humiliation. Phobias like the fear of indoors or outdoors, fear of being alone or in crowds, the fear of being followed, and sexual fears may emerge, requiring treatment from a professional counselor. Experts are often retained to educate judge and jury on the clinical presentations of childhood trauma.
Courtroom strategy typically involves:
- emphasis on the brutal nature of the abuse to set the stage for the acceptance of psychological damages
- testimony from a treating physician, counselor, or therapist to lend credence to the nature of physical, mental, and emotional injuries, as well as advocate for treatment
- behavioral witness testimony from family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, or other trusted individuals who can discuss behavioral changes, clues of abuse, or substantiation of essential facts within the case
- education from a forensic-psychiatrist or rape trauma expert who can discuss the effects of trauma on the day-to-day life of a survivor and advocate for long-term care
- objective information from a neurologist who can discuss and define mental disability
- presentation of the plaintiff as the final witness
Taking the stand is not always necessary to prove familial sexual abuse, but it can be compelling to judges and juries—and, therefore, is sometimes recommended. Children whose testimony can be confusing or conflicting may be able to submit their record through video interviews, formal depositions, or other means.
How Much Money Can You Get From Suing a Parent From Sexual Abuse?
Since such a suit would be focused on intentional, willful misconduct, punitive damages would very much be on the table. This subjective sum of money is added on top of whatever medical expenses are related to the abuse and the subjective award for pain and suffering. It is not uncommon for settlements and jury awards to reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Of course, the parents would need assets for such a suit to make sense. Property liens and wage garnishments may be possible in some cases. Child survivors may go after business assets or mandate the liquidation of other items such as boats, expensive sports cars, or art collections in order to satisfy the judgment. In the past, homeowners insurance companies have paid on settlements related to incest, though this is becoming increasingly more difficult to do.
For many adult survivors, it’s not about the money, but rather, about breaking the silence of abuse. They likely want to face their abusers and force them to accept responsibility for the damage done. Many survivors empower themselves and other survivors to acknowledge what happened and stay resilient.
For many child survivors, a civil lawsuit can remove predators from a position where they can continue to do harm. A civil lawsuit can also be a means of securing financial compensation to provide for medical services that may be needed in the future, as well as cover to loss of income or productivity.
San Francisco Lawyers Can Help Survivors of Sexual Abuse
If you are considering suing a parent or other family member for sexual abuse, it costs nothing to meet with an experienced member of our team to discuss your case. After your initial consultation, we’ll explore your claim and lay out your options for pursuing justice. For more than a decade, we’ve helped sex abuse victims recover millions of dollars for their suffering to get on the fast-track to recovery.
If we’re not a good fit for your particular case, we’ll help you find someone who can adequately represent you. We can help you access local counseling, support groups, therapy, and advocacy organizations that support your healing.
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