The Alliance has compiled a number of resources available for survivors, their friends and families, and professionals assisting survivors in New York City.
Factsheets: Extensions of the Criminal & Civil Statutes of Limitations in Child Sexual Abuse Cases
Most states have laws limiting the time during which crimes other than murder may be prosecuted. All states have time limitations for bringing a lawsuit to recover money for damages from the wrongdoing of another -- a civil action. In recent years, many states have adopted extensions to their criminal and civil statutes of limitation for cases of child sexual abuse and in certain other sexual assault cases. The length of the extension varies greatly between the states.
The majority of states that limit the time within which criminal prosecutions must be brought extends the time for cases of sexual offenses against children. Those states have recognized the power imbalance between child victims and the adult perpetrators, who are often family members. Child victims are more easily intimidated by offenders. The position of authority occupied by the perpetrator also enables the offender to confuse the child, by both assuring the child that the sexual conduct is not wrongful, and/or threatening the child with terrible consequences if he or she discloses the activity. This makes reporting of offenses very unlikely. Moreover, child victims may be too young to know how or what to report. States also recognize that child victims may suffer memory repression or severe psychological trauma from the nature of the offense. They may even be unaware of the fact that a crime has been committed against them. For all of these reasons, most legislatures have extended the limitations period for the prosecution of child sexual offenses.
Some states have no time limitation for the prosecution of most sexual offenses against children:
In addition to the above, several states have no statute of limitations for prosecutions of the most serious forms of sexual assault, regardless of the age of the victim. These include Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota .
Most other states have some sort of extension of the limitation period. Generally, these extensions are set out in the statute, but in a few jurisdictions this is simply a matter of law as created by court decisions ("common law"). The extension of time may be based on: a set number of years from the date of the crime; the date the child reaches majority (usually at age 18); the date the crime is first reported to law enforcement or another governmental agency; the date the victim discovers the crime; or some combination of extensions.
Even in states where there is an extended time limitation to prosecute someone for sexual abuse of a child, in some older cases of child molestation there may not have been a criminal law in effect at the time of abuse that prohibited the particular conduct. Check with the prosecutor in the jurisdiction where the abuse took place if you have any questions.
Nearly every state has a basic suspension of the statute of limitation ("tolling") for civil actions while a person is a minor. Many states have also adopted additional extensions specifically for cases involving sexual abuse of children. Extensions for filing civil actions for child sexual abuse are most often based upon the discovery rule -- by the time the victim discovers the sexual abuse or the relationship of the conduct to the injuries, the ordinary time limitation may have expired. This "delayed discovery" may be due to emotional and psychological trauma and is often accompanied by repression of the memory of abuse. Child victims frequently do not discover the relationship of their psychological injuries to the abuse until well into adulthood -- usually during the course of psychological counseling or therapy. They may not even discover the fact of such abuse until they undergo such therapy.
As of 1997, 28 states had adopted an extension of the time limitation based on the "discovery" of child sexual abuse or its effects:
Those 28 states have passed statutes which specifically extend the time for filing such civil lawsuits. A few of these have a maximum number of years that the time to file suit can be extended.
In other states, there may be a "common law" extension of the time limitation based on discovery. ("Common law" refers to law created over time by court decisions, rather than law passed by the legislature.)
Many other states extend the time for filing a civil suit until a certain number of years after the victim reaches adulthood, ranging from 2 to 17 years.
Even in cases where the civil statute of limitation has been extended by the legislature, there may be a question of retroactivity; in other words, whether the extension of time to sue would apply to cases of abuse that happened before the law extending the time was passed, or only to cases involving abuse that took place after the law was passed. Generally, this is a question for a civil attorney familiar with the laws of that jurisdiction.
Many state legislatures are still examining the issue of extending statutes of limitation for crimes against children. Your local state legislator or your state's coalition against sexual assault should have more information about any changes to the law that are being considered.
Visit your local law library to determine the statute of limitations in your state. For questions about the applicability of the criminal statute of limitations in a particular case, check with your local prosecutor's office. If you have questions about the civil statute of limitations that would apply in a case, contact with a local attorney.
(All statutes discussed in this summary are current through 1997 and are tracked through the National Center for Victims of Crime's Legislative Database, which is updated annually.)
Crnich, Joseph and Kimberly Crnich. (1992). Shifting the Burden of Truth: Suing Child Sexual Abusers C A Legal Guide for Survivors and Their Supporters. Lake Oswego, OR.
National Center for Victims of Crime (1997) "Child Sexual Abuse," Get Help Series, Arlington, VA.
National Center for Victims of Crime (1996) "Child Victims and the Law," Get Help Series, Arlington, VA.
National Center for Victims of Crime (1997) "Civil Legal Remedies for Victims of Violent Crime," Get Help Series, Arlington, VA.
National Center for Victims of Crime (1997) "Incest," Get Help Series, Arlington, VA.
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Copyright © 1998 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.
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