Survivors of childhood sexual abuse will soon have more opportunities to sue their abusers, after the Arizona Senate and House unanimously passed a bill that Gov. Doug Ducey has vowed to sign.
HB2466, a compromise struck between advocates for survivors of sexual abuse and Republican senators who argued that expanding the statute of limitations would expose innocent people to false allegations, will raise the age by which survivors must file civil lawsuits from 20 to 30.
Older, time-barred survivors can file civil lawsuits until Dec. 31, 2020, but they’ll face a higher burden of proof and won’t be eligible to receive punitive damages.
Sen. Heather Carter, who joined fellow Republican Sen. Paul Boyer in vowing not to vote for a budget until the Legislature voted on the issue, called the bill a “critical first step.”
“Arizona is no longer the dark corner where you can hide a pedophile,” Carter said. “With this bill, we are bringing victims out of the shadows and giving them a voice.”
Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she’s been threatened personally and professionally for her pledge not to vote for a budget. Fellow Republican lawmakers have said that every bill she’ll sponsor next year is dead and claimed that her political career is over, she said.
But the issue of protecting children transcends everything else the Legislature does, Carter said.
“Nothing that we have experienced the last two weeks comes even remotely close to what a child who has experienced sexual abuse experiences,” Carter said. “Nothing. And that’s why I held out.”
Carter, Boyer and Senate Democrats have insisted that the Senate address the issue of childhood sexual abuse, denying Senate President Karen Fann the support necessary to pass a budget until HB2466 had at least received a vote.
They faced opposition from conservative Republican senators including Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who said she felt “blackmailed.” She said extending the statute of limitations won’t stop child abuse.
“I guess I don’t see things exactly how you’re all seeing it on the floor today,” Allen said. “I see a lot of politics happening, and deals that were made to hold the majority caucus hostage over the budget.”
Debate about the issue has been especially heated. Republicans in the House caught on a hot mic talking about retaliating against Carter and Boyer by killing their bills and beginning an ethics investigation. And the national Victim Policy Institute paid for social media ads targeting Republicans who blocked the bill as protecting child predators.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, blocked one earlier version of the bill from being heard in his Senate Judiciary committee and testified against another version in the House. He said the bill approved Monday, which has a limited window for older victims to sue, is an acceptable compromise.
“I want to make it perfectly clear,” Farnsworth said. “There is nobody that wanted to protect perpetrators. What we wanted to do is have a bill that was careful in our zeal to go after child molesters that we didn’t victimize those who are innocent but may be accused 50 years later.”
Even after 50 years, survivors remember what happened to them, said Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson. She’s talked on the floor about how she was raped by her grandfather as a child and how it took her decades to speak out about what happened to her.
“People who have been abused, we remember every single day of our lives,” Steele said. “We know. We remember.”
Minutes after the bill was approved in the Senate, representatives also approved the measure, 59-0. Some GOP representatives also lamented the stalemate between Boyer, Carter and their Republican colleagues.
Rep. Regina Cobb, who earlier this year heard Boyer’s original proposal in a hearing but refused to give it a vote, said while Boyer’s motives were pure, the lawyers pushing for him to support it had ulterior motives — particularly by pushing for a window for time-barred plaintiffs to sue.
“The window opened it up to where it was a legal paradise for every ambulance-chasing lawyer in the state,” Cobb said.
Rep. Anthony Kern added that while “everybody” at the Arizona Legislature wanted to protect victims of sexual abuse, “in a rush to doing so, we could’ve hurt innocent people.”
Meanwhile, Democrats praised HB2466 as a good first step. Rep. Diego Rodriguez said lawmakers should consider further expansions of the statute of limitations in the future.
The Phoenix Democrat added that he was certain the stipulation that bars courts from awarding punitive damages to plaintiffs filing lawsuits by the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline would likely be tossed as unconstitutional in court.
Ducey said on Twitter that he looked forward to signing the bill, adding: “This session we heard from many people passionate about pursuing justice, accountability for abusers & protecting children. My sincere thanks to @PaulDBoyer.”