Advocates and lawmakers who won a hard-fought legislative victory for survivors of sexual abuse this spring are shifting their focus to preventing future cases of abuse.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, told members of a governor-appointed task force that he hoped to build on the law he sponsored expanding opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers. Letting older survivors who’ve processed their abuse is one way to expose serial abusers and prevent them from being around future victims, but Boyer said there’s still work to do to prevent abuse.
“My goal, and I know it’s ambitious, is that as a state we do everything that we can do so that not a single survivor is harmed ever again,” Boyer said.
Boyer and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, withheld their votes on the state’s budget to force a vote on the new law, which raises the age by which survivors of childhood sexual abuse must sue their assailants from 20 to 30. It also granted older, time-barred survivors a temporary window, until Dec. 31, 2020, to file civil lawsuits, though they’ll face a higher burden of proof and won’t be eligible to receive punitive damages.
The law was a compromise between advocates for survivors of childhood abuse and Republican senators who argued that expanding the civil statute of limitations could expose innocent people to false allegations from so-called victims seeking money. There is no statute of limitations for criminal charges for most child sex abuse cases.
Committee co-chairwoman Rachel Mitchell, the acting Maricopa County Attorney who spent much of her career as a sex crimes prosecutor, told the committee the victim in the first case she worked on as a clerk in the county attorney’s office in 1992 demonstrates that lawsuits aren’t about money.
That victim was a teenage flute player who was molested by a music teacher. As Mitchell’s office investigated, she learned the music teacher had previously abused another student at another school and been allowed to quietly resign.
The girl Mitchell worked with went on to sue her school, but agreed to reduce the monetary settlement the school offered if it would install windows in classroom doors.
“These lawsuits are not about money,” Mitchell said. “They are about change. Victims want to make sure this never happens to anybody else.”
Carter said Mitchell’s stories about the flute player and other victims highlighted something she wants the committee to focus on: teachers, coaches and pastors who groom victims and then get hired by other schools or parishes that are unaware of any allegations against the new hire.
“Hopefully with this committee’s work we can identify the perpetrator on the first offense and not the 30th offense,” Carter said.
Another thing Carter said she’d like is for the Legislature to restore a $3 million appropriation earmarked for investigating cold cases. The funding was part of a negotiated final budget bill that died late Memorial Day when House members surprisingly and overwhelmingly voted it down.
Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said she believed the Legislature should follow the lead of 36 other states that have already mandated annual age-appropriate training for school children to help them recognize whether they’re being abused. Boyer, then a representative, sponsored a bill doing that in 2018, but it was rewritten in the Senate.
“In this day and age, giving children and those who care for them the ability to speak up and say something’s not right here, it gets eyes on the problem and fixes it,” Steele said.
In future meetings, Boyer said he wants the task force to analyze survivor statistics to decide whether 30 is still too young to be an effective cutoff point. Advocates for survivors say it often takes until middle age for survivors to fully process what happened to them.
He said the task force also could look at an awareness campaign, a suggestion welcomed by task force member and self-described survivor advocate Greg Kelly. In 2009, Kelly learned from a random Google search two months before his window to file a civil lawsuit against the Delaware judge who molested him in the 1970s.
As that case proceeded, Kelly learned that other children had been harmed by the same man. His case, and media coverage of it, ensured that the judge could no longer abuse children, Kelly said.
“It only takes one big case to create a domino effect,” he said. “If there is anybody out there who is not aware of this law, we are presenting a tremendous disservice to this state.”