Child sexual abuse survivors and their allies rally at the state Capitol for statute of limitations reforms in 2018. Photo Source: Attorney General Josh Shapiro via Flickr.
By Katie M. Shipp
As lawmakers return to Harrisburg this week, it is imperative that they prioritize passing window legislation that will allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice against perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them.
As an attorney, I have received innumerable phone calls from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The calls are all too familiar – they are reaching out because they finally have the strength to talk about what happened to them as a child, and they want to seek justice through the court system.
Often, I am the first person they have ever had the courage to tell. Most of the time, it has taken decades for them to find the strength to come forward. Unfortunately, I frequently have to tell survivors that, while I commend their courage, there’s little we can do because of an outdated statute of limitations that makes it impossible for many victims to pursue their claims in court.
That is precisely why we must open a window for these survivors to file a claim – the statute of limitations does not consider the reality of delayed disclosure for childhood sexual abuse.
Disclosing childhood sexual abuse is unlike disclosing victimhood in any other crime. Delayed disclosure is the norm according to data from CHILD USA. The Journal of Interpersonal Violence reports that one in five survivors of childhood sexual abuse never disclose their abuse to another person.
For those who do, it often takes decades before they find the strength to come forward. Survivors of institutional sexual abuse take even longer, according to a 2019 report on Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. In my experience, most survivors do not talk about the sexual abuse they endured until around age 50. Even then, the vulnerability it takes to come forward and share details of what happened should never be underestimated.
As children, survivors of sexual abuse are dealing with immediate trauma. Whether the abuse is ongoing or ended, they are in survival mode.
Children often do not have the ability to truly understand what they endured nor do they have the ability to communicate it to the adults around them. Survivors report feeling ashamed and afraid. Societal norms, especially decades ago, taught children to remain quiet and respect their elders. To speak up and against adults, especially those trusted widely and in positions of authority, was taboo.
As child survivors turn into adults, they carry with them the impact of the abuse. Struggling to rebuild their lives, it’s not uncommon for survivors to face obstacles such as housing instability, drug and alcohol dependency, lack of adequate employment, anxiety, depression – the list goes on. It often takes a survivor obtaining some level of stability in adulthood before they are able and willing to speak out. Even then, survivors are afraid of what it means to carry the label “victim.”
Childhood sexual abuse does not only impact the victim, but also their family, their friends, and sometimes their entire community. The wife of one of my clients explained,
Because of the impact of abuse on my husband’s mental health, our whole family has suffered emotionally and financially. How could a child have the understanding and confidence to come forward. These are adult issues that take an adult to understand and stand up for themselves. It’s time to protect our children. – Jane Doe 1
As an attorney that practices in both Pennsylvania and New York, I have had the privilege of representing survivors under New York’s window legislation known as the Child Victim’s Act or CVA. For the first time in my career, I was able to call New York survivors who were previously outside the statute of limitations and let them know that they finally have a pathway to justice.
Several of my New York clients shared with me that one of the main reasons they came forward was to shed light on the history of childhood sexual abuse and make sure that their grandchildren are protected better than they were.
Survivors want accountability and transparency. In Pennsylvania, that is something that can only be achieved by opening a window that allows us to pull back the curtain, hold those responsible accountable, and learn from the mistakes of the past so we don’t repeat them in the future.
I am not just an attorney advocating for survivors but also a mother of two young children. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and I am raising my two beautiful children in the same community I grew up in.
By allowing survivors’ voices to be heard, we are erasing the stigma that has come, for far too long, with the label “victim.” We must teach our children that if they have the courage to come forward, something will be done to right the wrong.
By holding perpetrators – and those institutions that enabled them – accountable, we are shifting the blame from the victim to those who were truly responsible.
In doing so, we are also ensuring better protections for today’s children. Regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on, this is something we all want. This is something tangible we can all do together, and it’s time to get it done.
Katie M. Shipp, of Pittsburgh, is the managing partner at Marsh Law Firm where she exclusively represents victims of sexual abuse.
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