Iowa gives child sex abuse survivors very little time to sue abusers. Some are trying to change that
By Katarina Sostaric / Iowa Public Radio
Oct. 6, 2022, 5 a.m. ·
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If a survivor of childhood sexual abuse tells someone what happened to them, studies suggest most don’t do it until they’re well into adulthood. But many Iowans abused as children run out of time to sue their abusers at age 19. Survivors and some lawmakers are working to get rid of the time limit on civil lawsuits related to child sex abuse with the hope that they can protect kids in Iowa.
A few months ago, Sarah finally found the right words to describe what happened to her in high school.
“Up until this spring, I would tell people, ‘Oh, I had an affair with my teacher,’” she said. “And it’s like, no, you didn’t. No you didn’t. You were groomed and sexually assaulted by your teacher. Those are vastly different statements.”
Sarah said she didn’t like the teacher when he first started working at her school in Johnson County.
But she said he slowly manipulated her and then started sexually abusing her when he was in his late 20s and she was 17. It went on for nearly two years.
“He learned a lot about me and my family and my insecurities, and all these different things that he then used against me to then use his classroom as a hunting ground for assaulting children,” she said.
Sarah, now in her mid-30s, learned that the teacher allegedly abused another student after her—this time, in Illinois. She felt ready to do something about it. But she quickly found out Iowa law was standing in her way.
If a survivor of childhood sexual abuse tells anyone at all what happened to them, studies suggest most don’t do it until they’re well into adulthood.
But many Iowans abused as children run out of time to sue their abusers at age 19. Survivors get a little extra time if they were abused by a teacher or counselor, or if they “discover” the abuse later in life. It’s still one of the strictest time limits in the country.
Sarah, other survivors and some lawmakers are working to get rid of the time limit on civil lawsuits related to child sex abuse with the hope that they can protect other kids in Iowa.
The Iowa Legislature removed the time limit on county attorneys filing criminal charges related to child sex abuse last year. But it’s not retroactive, so that doesn’t help Sarah or anyone else who was over 33 years old when the bill was signed. On the civil court side, Sarah’s time to sue her abuser ran out many years ago.
“It hurt, right, to be like a born resident of Iowa and see that just because I happen to live a couple of hours west of somebody else, I have completely different legal rights to come forward as a victim and hold somebody accountable for assaulting a child, and trying to protect other children from this person,” she said.
Sarah has asked us to only use her first name because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her ongoing efforts to get her abuser out of the classroom.
Sarah filed a police report this summer, and IPR reviewed it. The report lists the alleged offense as sexual exploitation by a school employee. It says Sarah has documentation of the teacher’s actions in a journal, and she provided that to law enforcement along with a statement from a witness.
Still, her only hope for seeking some measure of justice through the courts lies with state lawmakers, who could remove the time limit on child sex abuse lawsuits and make it retroactive. As of last year, 24 states allowed victims previously barred by legal time limits to file lawsuits, and 15 states got rid of the time limit entirely.
“I think it’s important for Iowans to understand that our child sex abuse laws are the worst in the nation,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.
She has filed a lot of bills over the past several years that would extend or end the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
“There’s no statute of limitations on the trauma that Iowans endure after being sexually abused,” Petersen said. “They shouldn’t be shut out from justice by having an arbitrary deadline on when they can seek damages of their perpetrator and institutions that covered up the crime.”
Petersen’s bills have stalled in the legislature year after year. Groups representing the Catholic bishops of Iowa, school boards, insurance interests and civil defense lawyers have publicly registered their opposition to some of these proposals.
The Iowa Catholic Conference declined to comment on the matter. A spokesperson for the Iowa Association of School Boards said they were unable to comment in time for this story. And the only contact listed for Iowa Insurance Associates did not return a phone message.
A lobbyist for the Iowa Defense Counsel Association told IPR the group is concerned about lawsuits that seek payment from third parties, like the employer of a person who abused kids.
“The age of these cases would make it extremely challenging to identify and locate defense witnesses, as well as other documentary evidence,” the IDCA statement reads.
Some states have different time limits on lawsuits against perpetrators and their employers or other third parties. But advocates for survivors say being able to hold the institutions financially accountable is key to ensuring they put policies in place to protect kids from abuse.
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he supports removing the time limit on lawsuits related to child sex abuse. But he said he hasn’t been able to get enough support from Republican members of the committee he chairs for the GOP majority to move the bills forward.
“The concern was that, what if there’s just all these lawsuits that are filed that are unfounded in regards to accusing someone of sexual abuse,” Zaun said.
False accusations in these cases are “exceedingly rare,” according to Kathryn Robb, who is executive director of Child USAdvocacy and is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She said survivors still have to prove their cases in court with evidence.
“The number one thing I hear from survivors more than anything else is, ‘I just don’t want this to happen to another child.’” Robb said. “It’s not about the money. It’s about accountability and protecting children now and into the future.”
She said changing the law will help expose people like the teacher who allegedly assaulted Sarah and at least one other student.
“If survivors can’t come forward in a civil court and identify their perpetrators, it’s very simple: kids are in danger,” Robb said. “Because when we have hidden predators, kids are in danger.”
Sarah has spent months calling lawyers, advocates and education officials trying to get some action taken against the teacher who allegedly manipulated and assaulted her. This has all left her with one big question.
“Why are people in power and government protecting predators instead of empowering victims?” Sarah asked.
A National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673 and other resources are available at rainn.org
This story comes to Nebraska Public Media via NPR’s Midwest Newsroom, a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.