In 1990, California’s Code of Civil Procedure 340.1 liberalized the statute of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases. According to the revised statute, childhood sexual abuse victims would have eight years from obtaining the age of majority (age 26) or three years following “the discovery of harm” to file a legal complaint in civil court. This rule of delayed discovery gives hope to victims who may discover signs of sexual abuse later in life. If you were a victim of sexual abuse in the past—and you’ve only recently made the connection between the abuse and the harm you’ve suffered—sexual abuse attorneys in the Bay Area may be able to help.
What Constitutes the Delayed Discovery of Sexual Abuse?
When someone is sexually abused, they don’t always interpret what’s happened to be abuse. This misunderstanding is more common in cases of sexual abuse of children, especially when the child has been groomed by their abuser. There are many other reasons why a sexual abuse victim wouldn’t immediately make the connection, discovering signs of sexual abuse later in life.
- The victim was deceived. Take, for instance, the case of Dr. Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics’ team physician who was sentenced to 175 years in prison for serial molestation. The victims were unaware that the doctor was deviating from standard medical procedures when he would perform pelvic physical therapy on them. Some of the parents of these young girls were even in the room during these treatments. Many victims had attempted to come forward with questions or concerns but were failed institutionally.
- The victim was physically or mentally disabled. Those with physical or mental disabilities are more likely to be sexually abused by members of their family or trusted caregivers; this can be true for children with disabilities as well as elderly individuals. Predators may seek out those with disabilities as they may be less likely to perceive the actions as inappropriate. Certain types of disabilities can mask behavioral changes that could otherwise be attributed to sexual abuse, making it easier for the perpetrator to get away with it.
- The victim suffered mental illness as a result of the abuse. The classic psychological responses to trauma include numbing, denial, amnesia, dissociation, and achieving altered states of consciousness. If the victim experiences any of these traumas, they may partially or fully repress memories of the assaults and the accompanying suffering. Over time, stages of discovery may develop through therapy, triggering events, life changes, or maturation into adulthood.
A victim who discovers the signs of sexual abuse later in life can choose to file a civil lawsuit.
Delayed Discovery Claims in Cases of Child Sexual Abuse
There are a handful of noteworthy cases where the delayed discovery rule was applied.
- In Hammer v. Hammer, a girl who had been sexually abused by her father for an average of three times a week from age five to 15 alleged that the psychological distress caused by the abuse made her unable to comprehend the nature of her injuries. It wasn’t until she went to counseling during adulthood that she was able to see the abuse for what it was. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recognized the “intolerable perversion of justice” in applying a strict statute of limitations to her case.
- In Osland v. Osland, the court determined that a woman suing her father for childhood sexual assault and battery between the ages of 10 and 15 had sustained emotional trauma severe enough to prevent her from discovering her cause of action during the statute of limitations.
- In Johnson v. Johnson, a 32-year-old suddenly recalled incest during psychotherapy and made the connection to her current injuries. The Illinois courts separated delayed discovery cases into two categories: Type 1, where the plaintiff knew of the sexual assaults at the age of majority but was unaware that physical and psychological problems were caused by it; or Type 2, where the plaintiff had no recollection of knowledge of the sexual abuse until recently. After classifying it as a Type 2 case, the court allowed the action to proceed, citing her “blameless ignorance” and “total memory loss” as valid reasons to file after the deadline.
- In John R. v. Oakland Unified School District, the court ruled that a parent’s delayed discovery of a sexual assault on a minor was due to the “continuing effect of the assault,” so the cause of action for the assault didn’t begin tolling until the abuse had commenced or until the realization of harm by the victim—or, in this case, by the victim’s parents.
- In Evans v. Eckelman, a California appellate court didn’t immediately discount a plaintiff’s right to invoke the discovery rule by alleging “unawareness” that the abuse was wrong, or by alleging repression of the abuse. In this case, three brothers were molested by their uncle and former foster father and claimed they developed psychological blocking mechanisms that prevented them from comprehending the wrongfulness of the abuse, as well as the nature and extent of the resulting damage. The court also agreed that the “special relationship” between the parties made it difficult for the plaintiffs to comprehend the negligence or the injury. They acknowledged that the psychological blocking or coping mechanisms used by children in cases of sexual abuse were well-established by researchers and commentators.
In these cases, the victims were able to file after the deadline but this isn’t always the case.
Discovering Signs of Sexual Abuse Later in Life and Filing Deadlines
While many plaintiffs in childhood sexual abuse cases find success in applying the rule of delayed discovery to civil lawsuits, overcoming statutes of limitations remains a hard-fought battle in most circumstances. It may be best to bring a claim within the state deadlines if possible. These cases still represent the minority, but provide a glimmer of hope that, since 1990, the courts have arrived at a better understanding of the unique psychological conditions of victims, and why adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse may need to come forward after discovering signs of sexual abuse later in life.
Even more powerful than the delayed discovery rule is the portent for lawmakers to open up a lookback window. During these windows, lawmakers temporarily abolish the statute of limitations for seeking justice against child sexual abuse, allowing any previously time-barred case to have its day in civil court. New York recently passed the Child Victims Act which allows such a window. California has had a lookback window in the past and another through Assembly Bill 218 is currently under consideration.
The rule of delayed discovery can be used in many cases, but it’s best to consult an experienced attorney to find out about any deadlines that may apply to your specific case.
What to Do If You’ve Discovered Signs of Sexual Abuse Later in Life
Perhaps you only recently realized a childhood experience constituted as child abuse. Maybe the identity of your assailant was unknown, or you mistakenly believed the institution in charge of protecting you had the situation under control. Or maybe you thought you had put the past behind you, only to find that a triggering event in the present has made you aware of the signs of sexual abuse later in life.
Whatever the case may be, you needn’t hide from your past any longer. The law is a complex maze of hurdles, but they are not necessarily insurmountable, given the right set of facts and a compelling argument. As you know, there is no arbitrary time limit on how long a person can suffer from childhood sexual abuse. Whether the abuse happened months or years ago, it’s never too late to seek healing from childhood sexual violence.
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