The average age at which someone discloses the sexual assault they experienced as a child is 52, according to the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention.
That’s why the center in Keene supports the recently introduced N.H. Senate Bill 508, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil cases relating to sexual assault. While the bill doesn’t specifically pertain to child victims, it would open the door for more adults who were victims of sexual abuse as children to take legal action against their abusers.
Robin Christopherson, MCVP’s executive director, said the bill would help victims find closure. There shouldn’t be “an expiration date for justice,” she said.
“Because a sexual assault is a traumatic event, it can take survivors years to come forward,” Christopherson explained. “If we’re really interested in providing justice for survivors and [giving] them a choice to pursue civil or criminal avenues toward getting justice or getting closure, then lifting the statute of limitations would enable that to happen.”
A 2017 report from the Congressional Research Service explains the rationale behind these time limits for sexual assault and other crimes — to guarantee the accused “prompt prosecution” and shield them from having to defend themselves in cases where evidence, and memory, may be lost.
In New Hampshire, current state law dictates that a civil action alleging sexual assault must be brought within the 12 years after the victim’s 18th birthday if the victim was a minor at the time of the assault. SB 508, which is now under review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would allow civil actions pertaining to sexual assault accusations to be brought at any time.
Christopherson pointed out that the average reporting age for child sexual assault of 52 — a statistic from the nonprofit think tank Child USA — is well beyond 30, and added that the current statute of limitations isn’t appropriate for how these situations “actually play out.”
According to the Concord-based New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, of which MCVP is a member, one in every four females in the state has been sexually assaulted, with 41 percent of assaults reported to have occurred before the age of 18.
Additionally, the coalition says, one in every 20 New Hampshire males has been sexually assaulted, with 68 percent of those assaults happening before the victim’s 18th birthday.
“The Reality of Sexual Assault in New Hampshire,” a report from the research committee of the state’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, says that between 1992 and 1999, sexual assault was the least likely violent crime to be reported to law enforcement. The report, which cites the National Crime Victimization Survey, says this was also true in 2006.
N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, a co-sponsor on SB 508, said he hopes the legislation will bring greater awareness to the common, long-term mental health impacts of sexual assault.
“The psychological trauma associated with sexual abuse — that doesn’t have a statute of limitations,” he said.
The bill’s prime sponsor is Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth. In a Feb. 20 news release, Fuller Clark offered a sentiment similar to Kahn’s, saying the trauma doesn’t always get easier with time. SB 508 would give New Hampshire courts the tools needed to deliver justice to victims and their families, she said.
“We hear about cases from 20 or 30 years ago that would be winnable in court today,” she said. “But [cases] cannot move forward since the statute of limitations has passed.”
Aside from Fuller Clark and Kahn, five other senators have added their support to the bill: Sens. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro; Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst; Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat running for governor; John Reagan, R-Deerfield; and Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester.
There are also five state representatives supporting the bill, three Democrats and two Republicans.
A separate piece of legislation, House Bill 1586, sponsored by Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, would eliminate the limitations on criminal sexual assault cases. The House bill is primarily sponsored by Democrats, including Sen. Melanie Levesque, who represents Rindge, but also has support from one House Republican and one Senate Republican.
The current statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault cases is within 22 years of the victim’s 18th birthday in cases where the assault took place when the victim was under 18.
HB 1586 has been referred to the House Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
If signed into law, SB 508 would go into effect 60 days after its passage, while HB 1586 would take effect Jan. 1.