The hardest step many victims of sexual abuse take is admitting they were victimized. It can take a significant amount of time – decades, even – for a survivor to come forward seeking justice. By then, many find that their best hope is through filing a civil lawsuit. To that end, Colorado has joined a growing number of states to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits.
In This Article
- New Colorado Law Puts Victims First
- Why File a Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Now?
- Defining Sexual Misconduct
- Sexual Assault and Colorado Criminal Codes
- The Benefits of Pursuing a Civil Case
- Holding Organizations Accountable
- Possible Causes of Action in a Civil Child Sexual Abuse Case
- The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Victims
- Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Talk to a Child Sexual Abuse Litigator
If you or someone close to you experienced sexual abuse as a child by someone they trusted at school, church, or another organization, there could be legal remedies available. Our Litigation Team has compassionate and tenacious attorneys who want to make sure someone is held accountable for what happened. Call 303-688-0944 for your case assessment.
New Colorado Law Puts Sex Abuse Victims First
On January 1, 2022, SB21-073, also known as The Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act, took effect.
The law establishes a new cause of action specifically to deal with negligence and institutional coverups that Colorado’s educational and religious organizations have gotten away with for decades. Now, survivors of sexual abuse have a clear right to civil relief, even if they were abused as a child participating in an adult-supervised youth program.
The Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act:
- Eliminates the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits arising over acts of sexual abuse.
- Allows schools, churches, and other organizations to be sued for covering up, ignoring, or failing to prevent acts of sexual abuse.
- Permits parents or legal guardians of a sexually abused child to sue the individual and/or organization that ignored or enabled the abuse.
Before 2022, Colorado’s childhood sex abuse survivors didn’t get much time to consider filing suit before the statute of limitations was up. Until January 1 of 2022, survivors had to file a claim within six years of their 18th birthday if they wanted to try to hold an individual perpetrator accountable. The statute of limitations for suing an organization for their part in the abuse was even shorter – just two years. The Child Sexual Accountability Act rectifies that.
Why File a Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Now?
Victims of sexual abuse deserve justice whenever they choose to seek it. As well-intentioned as the old statute of limitations might have been, it misunderstood the long-term effects of such abuse, especially in the absence of accountability.
While many survivors choose to simply “move on” from what happened to them, others are unable to begin to recover until either the abuser or the organization that employed the abuser is held accountable.
While the decision to come forward is deeply personal, it is important for child sexual abuse survivors to know this legal option is available to them.
Defining Sexual Misconduct
Sexual misconduct is any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature committed against an unwilling victim. There are three categories of sexual misconduct: sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Let’s take a look at how the law defines them.
Any sexual activity by an aggressor with a victim who is unable to give consent is sexual abuse. Common victims include minors under the age of consent, adults or minors with disabilities, elderly adults, and anyone who is either asleep, unconscious, or incapacitated by alcohol or drug use.
Any sexual contact or behavior performed without explicit consent is considered sexual assault. It can range from unwanted touching and groping to rape. Attempted rape is another act of sexual assault.
Any behavior of a sexual nature directed at an unwilling participant. Harassment can be verbal, visual, or physical. Unwanted sexual overtures and requests for sexual favors are forms of harassment.
Sexual Assault and Colorado Criminal Codes
In Colorado, any individual aged 16 or younger cannot legally consent to sexual activity with an adult more than 10 years older than them. Minors who are 15 or younger cannot legally consent to sexual acts with a partner more than four years older. C.R.S 18-3-402, 2016
The close in age exceptions protect young adults and other minors from being criminally prosecuted for statutory rape with consenting partners of equal status and roughly equal age.
Who the ‘Close in Age’ Provision Does Not Protect
Such exceptions do not protect young teachers, coaches, clergy, or youth organization workers from criminal or civil liability. If any adult in a position of trust has sexual contact with a child who’s younger than 18 faces at least a Class 4 felony under section 1.1 of C.R.S 18-3-405 (2016).
Note: A position of trust refers to an adult who is responsible in any way, for any length of time, for a child’s health, education, welfare, or supervision.
Compliance is Not Consent
Children cannot consent to sex, especially not with an adult who holds a position of trust.
This is a bold-line rule. Any argument that a minor or child consented, wanted, or approved of the sexual relationship with an adult authority figure is legally wrongheaded.
The Benefits of Pursuing a Civil Case
Criminal Prosecution v. Civil Liability
There is no statute of limitations for criminal cases of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it can take decades for victims of child sexual abuse to come forward. In fact, according to ChildUSA, the average age a survivor comes forward is 52. After that much time has passed, it could be difficult to prove a criminal charge. Evidence vanishes. Witnesses die, move away, or simply cannot give reliable testimony.
The Criminal Process
Only the state can initiate criminal prosecution, and most times it is only against the individual who has been accused of committing the abuse.
A criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a difficult standard to meet if too much time has elapsed between the crime and reporting it. If prosecution results in a conviction, the perpetrator could face up to 12 years in prison and fines between $2,000 and $500,000.
Criminal prosecution does not compensate the victim or their family for injury or damages resulting from the sexual abuse. And any fines that are ordered to be paid go to the state’s crime victim compensation fund, which has its own set of stringent eligibility requirements.
The Civil Process
A civil action seeks monetary compensation for the victim by holding accountable the individual abuser and/or the organization that employed and/or enabled the abuse.
The survivor, or their parents, can bring the lawsuit on their own. However, a skilled litigation attorney will improve the chances of a positive result by meeting important deadlines, developing a strong legal strategy, and advocating for you in court — to name a few benefits of having legal counsel.
Unlike a criminal prosecution, the burden of proof is lower in a civil case. A successful lawsuit only needs to show that the plaintiff more likely than not suffered sexual abuse as a child and that the defendant committed the acts.
Holding Organizations Accountable
The same burden of proof applies to bringing a civil action against a school district, church, or youth organization. The lawsuit must demonstrate that, in all probability, leaders in the institution enabled the abusive acts in one or more of the following ways:
- ignored or minimized credible reports of sexual abuse
- failed to screen employees who went on to commit child sexual abuse
- failed to properly monitor employees who committed abuse
- failed to alert law enforcement after learning of children being sexually abused in their care
- failed to disclose sexual misconduct or abuse by a former employee to a future employer
- used threats or bribes to silence survivors or to cover up sexual abuse in their district, church, or organization
- failed to thoroughly investigate claims of child sexual abuse or sexual misconduct by employees
- intentionally delayed or stalled investigations
- shuffled credibly accused employees to other departments or locations where they continued to abuse children
Since the burden of proof is much higher in a criminal proceeding, it’s still possible to win a civil case against an accused abuser and/or their organization, even if the state failed to obtain a conviction.
Possible Causes of Action in a Civil Child Sexual Abuse Case
Cause of action is a legal term referring to a set of facts that justify a right to sue to obtain money, property, or the enforcement of a right against another party. There is no cause of action called child sexual abuse, however.
What happens instead is that a plaintiff and attorney roll several causes of action into one personal injury lawsuit against either the perpetrator or the organization that enabled the acts. Causes of action (or COAs) most likely to fit within a child sexual abuse package include:
- Assault: a purposeful act by one person that creates a fear of imminent harm or offensive contact with another
- Battery: intentional harmful contact on the plaintiff by the defendant (abuser or organization)
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress: extreme or outrageous conduct by the defendant caused emotional distress
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress: careless or negligent behavior was so extreme it caused the plaintiff emotional distress
Note: Proving an abuser or organization liable under multiple causes of action does not necessarily mean a greater monetary damage award. It does, however, improve a survivor’s chances of winning the case. Also, the theories covered here are not the final word on what is possible. A skilled and experienced attorney might find any number of additional legal concepts to fit a particular case.
The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Child Victims
Every person processes shame, trauma, humiliation, and even rejection differently. Unfortunately, many child sexual abuse survivors need many years to understand that, yes, they were victims, not willing participants as their abuser may have led them to believe.
Why Early Warning Signs Go Unheeded
Sexual contact with an adult, especially by one in a position of trust or authority, is understandably abnormal and frightening to the child or adolescent experiencing it. How a minor reacts to such abuse depends on factors like age, gender, the abuser’s age and gender, and the amount of trust, admiration, or fear the child has for the abuser.
Unfortunately, too few sexually abused children immediately report what is happening to them. Still, a child or teenager who experiences repeated sexual abuse, or even a single occurrence, could manifest it in real-time through a variety of alarming behaviors, such as:
- trouble sleeping or experiencing nightmares
- loss of appetite or trouble swallowing food
- mood swings, insecurity, or withdrawal
- depression or anxiety
- thinking of themselves or their body as “dirty,” “ugly,” or “weird”
- not wanting to be touched or hugged
- dug or alcohol abuse
- running away from home
- attempting or threatening suicide
- demonstrating knowledge of adult language and sexual behavior
Unfortunately, many of these behaviors are often attributed to other factors in a child’s or teenager’s life, such as divorce, a death in the family, a long-distance move to a new city, or falling in with the wrong crowd.
Sexual predators prey on children because they’re vulnerable and less likely to speak up about the abuse. Kids who live in poverty or whose parents struggle with addiction can be especially vulnerable. Warning signs may be missed by parents or guardians. And it’s possible the child may not exhibit immediate signs of abuse.
Some children may repress the abuse to cope, while others may feel a need to protect their abuser. The latter can be especially true if the child or teen has been manipulated through a process known as grooming.
A predatory adult in a position of influence or authority uses grooming to gain access to an intended minor victim. The adult creates a false sense of trust by filling a need in the child’s life, then they isolate and desensitize the child to sexual behavior. Once the relationship becomes sexual, the abuser relies on their unique position as both a romantic partner and authority figure to maintain control.
The most sinister aspect of grooming is that it can resemble an educator or religious figure merely giving a child extra attention to help them succeed, as any compassionate professional would. Not only does it gain the child’s trust, it often deceives the parents as well.
Sexual abuse is not perpetrated only by adults in positions of trust. Some students attempt to dominate or bully their peers with sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of torment, both at school and on social media.
In fact, according to a recent Associated Press year-long investigation, there were no fewer than 17,000 reports of peer sexual assault committed by students against other students over a four-year span. It bears mentioning that these were only the reported incidents.
The AP investigation concluded that for every case of child sexual abuse committed by an adult, there were seven committed by a fellow student.
Often, the abuse continues and escalates either because the adolescent victim is too afraid or ashamed to report the aggressor(s) or because the adult leaders at the school or organization failed to recognize the seriousness of the incidents.
In most states, including Colorado, public and private school employees are legally required to report suspected child abuse or neglect. This includes child sexual abuse.
These mandatory reporters typically are teachers, coaches, and school staff members. When they witness or suspect that a child is being sexually harassed or abused, either by an adult or another student, they must report it.
When mandatory reporters fail at this duty, they can be fined or even face harsher legal consequences. Furthermore, an experienced legal team can use this neglect to build a case against an abuser or irresponsible school district.
Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Child sex abuse survivors can suffer long-term effects that ripple into adulthood. A 2021 study by Psychology Today found that survivors continue to suffer in four key ways:
A recent examination of more than four million people’s medical records found that compared to people who have not been abused, survivors are between two and three times more to develop the following disorders:
- Eating disorders
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Child sexual abuse is also linked to continuous drug and alcohol abuse. Survivors are also more than two times more likely to attempt suicide.
Studies also have found that adults who suffered sexual abuse as minors were 50 to 70 percent more likely to report health problems like:
- gastrointestinal problems
- gynecological problems
- cardiopulmonary symptoms
- poorer overall health
Because of these physical ailments, child sex abuse survivors end up spending almost 20 percent more on health care each year than adults who did not experience such abuse.
It should hardly be surprising that adults who were forced or manipulated into sexual activities as children continue to struggle socially, such as:
- unsatisfying romantic relationships
- frequent disruptions such as divorce or breaking up
- sexual promiscuity or unfaithfulness
- increased sexual dysfunction
A study of more than 12,000 child sexual abuse survivors found that nearly half were sexually assaulted or abused again later in life. The same study also found compelling evidence that the children of women who have been abused are more likely to be sexually abused as minors. This suggests a cycle that continues from one generation to the next.
It cannot be stressed enough that what people experience as children matters. A 2015 study titled The Economic Burden of Child Maltreatment in the United States estimated the average lifetime cost of neglected or abused (including sexual abuse) children is $830,928 dollars.
Compared to adults who had ‘normal’ childhoods, those who experienced sexual abuse were found to:
- earn around $8,000 less per year, on average
- be less likely to hold a skilled job
- be three times more likely to be out of work due to sickness or disability
- be 14 percent more likely to be unemployed
- be less likely to have a bank account, own stocks, a home, or a vehicle
- be less likely to go to college or graduate from college
Childhood Sexual Abuse Has Lasting Emotional and Financial Implications
The data is clear, childhood sexual abuse has a continuing, corrosive impact on many aspects of a survivor’s life, their loved ones, and society as a whole. We must all do what we can to prevent it before it occurs — but the most important part of that is holding accountable abusers and the organizations who looked the other way.
Are You a Survivor? You’re Not Alone.
If you experienced child sexual abuse from a teacher, pastor, priest, or any adult in a position of trust, you might have legal recourse. As states like Colorado dissolve outdated statute of limitations laws, more survivors are coming forward to seek the justice they’ve deserved for years.
It’s not too late to speak up. Not anymore. Our experienced litigation attorneys will aggressively fight to hold your abuser accountable. Call 303-688-0944 for a confidential case assessment.