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Home / Iowa set to remove limits on prosecuting sexual abuse of minors
DES MOINES — During floor debate Friday, an Iowa legislator spoke for the first time publicly about sexual abuse she experienced as a child.
“It was something that I felt a lot of shame for. I was very confused. I was afraid to speak out,” Rep. Cherielynn Westrich, R-Ottumwa, told colleagues Friday during debate on Senate File 562 that addressed the sexual exploitation of minors.
It is only as an adult that she has found the courage to talk openly about being abused by a babysitter, she said before the House voted 84-2 to approve legislation eliminating Iowa's statute of limitation on criminal actions involving sexual abuse of children.
Under current Iowa law, criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases must be brought within 15 years after the victim turns 18.
“If we set an arbitrary number, a number of years that allows a perpetrator to gain the kind of immunity against being prosecuted, what would or should that arbitrary number be?” Westrich asked. “What would be fair to a child who has been violated? Five years? Twenty years? Fifty years?”
Like many victims of abuse, Westrich, a first-term lawmaker who owns a small manufacturing firm, said she forgot about the abuse until hearing someone else talk about being abused as a child.
“I think we need to support those victims who find the courage to speak out, who find the courage to come forward, no matter how long it takes them,” she said.
If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa will be the 14th state to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal penalties.
It will take effect immediately because “no Iowan of any age should have to live with the knowledge and fear that their attacker has avoided justice simply due to the passage of time,” said Rep. Garrett Gobble, R-Ankeny, who sponsored similar legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who has advocated for the change several times, welcomed the House action to catch up with other states.
She agreed with trial attorneys who had concerns the bill didn’t remove the statute of limitations on civil cases by victims seeking compensation for pain and suffering.
“We still have a lot of work to do to improve our civil statute of limitations laws that protect hidden predators living amongst us,” she said.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, added, “When those sexual predators are part of a system, whether that system is a religious organization or an academic organization, the people in charge of that system often just move them around from place to place and just cover it all up.”
In those cases, Wolfe said, people in authority, who she called complicit in the abuse, should not be allowed to “just shake their heads and apologize.”
“Sometimes you got to hit people in their checkbook before they're willing to make substantive changes,” she said.
In addition to eliminating the statute of limitations, the bill expands the crime of sexual abuse or exploitation by a counselor, therapist, or school employee to also include an adult who is not a school employee providing training or instruction to a minor outside of a school setting.
An adult is defined as anyone 18 years of age or older who is four or more years older than the minor. It originally passed the House, 91-0.
Penalties range from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony, depending on the type of sexual conduct.
Also Friday afternoon, the House approved HF 895 on an 86-1 vote, setting up the dispersal of federal block grant funds.
In addition to several standing appropriations. the bill would create two funds in the governor’s office for money received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act for state fiscal recovery and capital projects.
It would require that any data on the use of coronavirus pandemic relief funds the state provides to the U.S. Treasury Department be relayed to the Legislative Services Agency.
Late Thursday night, the House passed HF 868, 51-37, after debating the bill and 17 amendments for three hours to appropriate $970 million — a $24 million increase — for the Departments of Education and Blind, Iowa PBS, College Student Aid Commission and the Board of Regents.
The bill appropriates $970.368 million for fiscal year 2022, which is $24.432 million above this fiscal year’s total but $6.4 million less than the Senate has proposed.
It appropriates $569 million for the regents, which is $8.5 million less than the Senate is proposing, but $344,325 more than the current budget.
It’s an increase of $12 million for the Department of Education, $11.5 million for the College Student Aid Commission and $528,723 for the blind.
The House also voted 54-36 to approve HF 871, which appropriates $49.7 million general fund dollars for the Departments of Cultural Affairs and Workforce Development, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Iowa Finance Authority, Public Employment Relations Board and certain Board of Regents institutions.
That’s an increase of $8.2 million and includes another $28.1 million from other funds.
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