ATLANTA — After suffering through sexual abuse for a decade starting when she was 5, a Georgia woman said she was too emotionally wrecked to sue her alleged abuser until it was too late — state law says victims must file lawsuits seeking damages before they turn 23.
She got another chance when legislators in 2015 passed the Hidden Predator Act, which provided a two-year window during which victims older than that could sue their alleged abusers.
Now 28, the woman, identified in court documents only as H.M., filed a suit against her abuser in March. The case is in progress.
Other survivors may not get the same chance: The two-year window opened by the Hidden Predator Act, which went into effect July 1, 2015, expires Saturday, at which point Georgia will return to being one of the “worst five states in the country” for providing recourse for victims of childhood sex abuse, along with Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and New York, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of Child USA.
The 2015 law also provided a “discovery rule” that allows any victim of childhood sexual abuse suffered after July 1, 2015, to pursue civil action after age 23 if the lawsuit is brought within two years from the date when the victim knew or had reason to know of the abuse.
The lawmaker who sponsored the Hidden Predator Act, Republican Rep. Jason Spencer, is trying to get his colleagues in the General Assembly to extend the measure and go even further. He wants to open a new two-year window, and to expand the scope of the law to allow victims to sue both their abusers and the organizations where they worked or with which they were associated. He also wants to extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit by 15 years, to the victim’s 38th birthday.
But the same intense opposition to the time exemptions that has limited efforts thus far could thwart this latest attempt, which Spencer hopes will pass in the legislative session that starts in January.
Among the opponents are religious and business interests that, while not publicly speaking against it, have actively lobbied behind closed doors to defeat Georgia’s law and similar measures in other states, Hamilton said.
The opponents have argued that opening up the statute of limitations would lead to a flood of cases, false claims and ruined reputations — but Hamilton, who tracks cases around the country, says that hasn’t been the case so far. In Georgia, only 10 lawsuits that would have been banned under the previous statute have been filed during the special two-year window, she said.
H.M. was adopted by her maternal aunt at a young age and thought of her aunt and uncle as her parents. When she was 5, the uncle, whom she saw as a father, began sexually abusing her, fondling her, taking naked photos of her and forcing her to perform oral sex, according to her lawsuit.
The Associated Press doesn’t identify victims of alleged sexual abuse and is also not naming the alleged abuser because that information could be used to identify H.M.
H.M. said she became suicidal and had to be institutionalized shortly after she confided in her brother when she was 16. For a long time, she said in a phone interview, she just wanted to put it behind her and get on with her life, especially after a criminal case fell apart.
But a nagging feeling gnawed at her: She worried he could be abusing others.
“I had some anger and resentment, more toward myself than anything else because I felt like I should have done more,” she said.
A major drawback to limiting the age by which victims who were abused as children must file lawsuits is that victims frequently unconsciously block out the abuse and only remember it years or even decades later, often not until they are in their 40s, said Emma Hetherington, who runs the Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic at the University of Georgia’s law school, which is representing H.M. and other clients free of charge. Others, like H.M., may vividly recall the abuse but aren’t emotionally strong enough or in a stable enough situation to pursue a lawsuit until much later.
Eliminating the statute of limitations, or at least extending the window for lawsuits, can bring justice to past victims while also identifying and stopping the predators, many of whom continue assaulting victims into their elderly years, Hamilton said.
Meredith Gardial, a post-graduate fellow at the university’s clinic, says lawyers have learned that H.M.’s uncle is still working with children’s groups at churches, has been trying to start a Bible study for young girls at his home, and abused his stepchildren. The lawyers have passed that information on to the state’s Division of Family and Children Services.
“There are people operating in the state right now, sexually assaulting children, that they could learn about if they were to pass the new window,” Hamilton said.