Frequently, victims of child abuse take years to realize the mere fact that they have been victimized. In many instances, victims repress the memories of abuse as a psychological safeguard. The capacity to consciously recollect the event may be blocked, and the individual may have no conscious recollection that such horrific events ever occurred. Nonetheless, the emotional consequences of the events frequently play a real and ongoing role in the victim’s life and may surface in the form of anxiety, anger and/or depression. Ultimately recovering such repressed memories is a beginning step in assisting the victim with real recovery.
Statute of Limitations
These repressed memories may be the first hurdle to pursuing a case for sexual abuse. All types of claims or lawsuits have time limits that are generally referred to as “statutes of limitation.” In most instances, the running of any such time limit begins when the event happened (e.g., a car wreck). For events that happen over time, calculation of the time limit can be challenging, such as when a child is abused for years.
In Missouri, for claims related to negligence, the standard period of time for filing a lawsuit is five (5) years. Other types of claims not based on negligence may also be involved, particularly time limits that may directly apply against the perpetrator for his or her intentional acts. Assault and battery are intentional acts that have shorter, two (2) year, statutes of limitation.
When Time Limits Start
Some states have a variation on when the time limit begins for sexual abuse cases. Exceptions have been made in certain areas of the law to accommodate for the unique circumstances of abuse of children. In keeping with recognition of repressed memories, and in further keeping with the vulnerable nature of children, there is forgiveness on when any such claim must be filed if it involves a minor. (i.e., an individual, in Missouri, under the age of 18 or 21 years, depending on the situation.)
In every instance of abuse affecting a minor, time limits are “tolled”, or paused, until the child reaches the age of majority. In Missouri, the age of majority with respect to legal cases varies. (e.g., age 18 for cases against healthcare providers, and age 21 for all other types of cases.)
Minors lack the legal capacity to sue. A parent can sue on the minor’s behalf before the child reaches majority, but the parent acts in the capacity of “next friend.” If nothing is done until the child reaches majority, the applicable time limit or period of limitation begins to run upon the commencement of the child’s 18th or 21st birthday.
Now add the effect of repressed memories. Missouri has recognized that, when a victim has repressed memories of the terrible event, the victim has up to five years upon realization of the events. Repressed memories are a barrier, but statutes of limitations are recognized to avoid “stale” claims. Over time, memories diminish, evidence disappears, and witnesses vanish. Statutes of limitation are designed to aid in the timely progress of claims. Hence, one should never wait until the end of the applicable time limit.
But, as previously stated, it can take much longer for a victim of child sexual abuse to come forward. They have to first understand what happened to them, then have the courage to open up about the abuse, and finally to take legal action against their abuser. This can take many years, if they ever disclose the abuse at all. Because of this, many states have began to implement Statute of Limitation Revival Laws that create a “lookback window” for those whose statute has ran out to file a civil claim.