Staff Columnist

End Iowa's statute of limitations laws for sexual abuse

The House Chamber at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday February 1, 2011. (The Gazette file photo)
The House Chamber at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday February 1, 2011. (The Gazette file photo)

When she was 16, my sister woke up from a nightmare. She dreamed she was being attacked by someone she knew. When she woke up, she told us it wasn’t just a bad dream. My sister had been assaulted over and over again from the age of 10 to the age of 12. It was only when she was 16, when her nightmares overwhelmed her, that she could finally tell us.

Initially, the crime was reported. But at 16 my sister was afraid. Afraid of not being believed, afraid of ruining people’s lives. Also, as in so many families, people she loved didn’t believe her and if they did, they wanted things kept quiet. And eventually, nothing happened. Now the statute of limitations has expired. My sister will never see justice. Her abuser remains free.

Most survivors of childhood sexual assault delay reporting what happened to them. Child USA, a think tank dedicated to reforming statute of limitations laws, reports that most childhood abuse survivors finally report when they are in their 50s, because of the culture of silence and shame that surrounds abuse. Restrictive statute of limitations laws prevent survivors of childhood sexual assault from seeking justice and allow predators to continue harming children.

The world is often and overwhelming and partisan place. So few fights seem winnable. So few laws can so clearly protect the people we love. But this is an easy one.

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In the Iowa Legislature, Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, has introduced three bills that will reform Iowa’s civil and criminal statute of limitations laws. The bills — SF2037, SF2038 and SSB3032 — are designed to turn Iowa from one of the worst states in the nation for survivors of abuse into a state that protects and values the lives of children and helps them seek justice by eliminating the statute of limitations on civil and criminal sexual assault cases.

Kathryn Robb, a lawyer, legislative advocate and law instructor who has been fighting to pass child sex abuse legislation, told me that most of the opposition to reforming statute of limitations bills stems from fears about false reporting. But Robb, who has been doing advocacy work for 14 years across the nation, says she’s never once seen a case of false reporting make it to the courts because of the change in the laws.

This isn’t the first time Petersen has tried to reform Iowa’s statute of limitations laws. The bills rarely get out of committee; the pressure from the insurance lobby is too great. This year, SF2037 and SF2038 have yet to be scheduled for discussion in their subcommittee despite session deadlines requiring they be passed by the Judiciary Committee as a whole by Feb. 21. SSB3032, which removes the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for sex abuse, not just for children. That bill was discussed Feb. 11.

The world is often and overwhelming and partisan place. So few fights seem winnable. So few laws can so clearly protect the people we love. But this is an easy one. A simple change that will make Iowa a safer place.

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It’s telling that the only opposition to Petersen’s legislation is the Iowa Insurance Associates — it’s insurance companies afraid of the cost of justice.

But the real costs are the children unable to wake up from their own nightmares.

Call or email Rep. Steve Holt, head of the House Judiciary Committee, and let him know you want Iowa to stop protecting abusers: (515) 281-3221; Steven.Holt@legis.iowa.gov.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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