Arkansas's Legal Options for Vulnerable Sexual Abuse Survivors

The Justice For Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act expands the rights of disabled and minor victims to take legal action against abuse perpetrators and others.

In 2021, Arkansas joined a number of states that have given vulnerable survivors of sexual abuse more time to hold perpetrators accountable. In this article, we'll explain key provisions of Arkansas's Justice For Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act (also known as SB 676), including:

  • changes to deadlines ("statute of limitations") for filing sex abuse lawsuits, and
  • a two-year "lookback window" that temporarily revives a survivor's right to sue, no matter how long ago the sexual abuse happened.

Who Are Vulnerable Victims?

The Justice For Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act applies to vulnerable victims of sexual abuse. Vulnerable victims are people who were disabled or minors (or both) at the time they were abused, meaning they were unable to give consent in the eyes of the law.

Under Arkansas law, a minor is a person under 18 years of age. Arkansas defines a disabled person as someone who's been legally or medically determined to be disabled by a medical or mental health provider.

What is Sexual Abuse?

The Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act broadly defines sexual abuse as any sexual contact or sexually explicit conduct (actual or simulated) with a vulnerable victim. Examples include:

  • rape (including statutory rape)
  • sexual assault in the first and second degree, and
  • offenses related to child sex abuse material (sometimes called "child pornography").

(Ark. Code Ann. § § 5-14-103, 5-14-124, 5-14-125, 5-27-303 (2021).)

Arkansas's Statute of Limitations for Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Statutes of limitations (SOLs) are laws that set deadlines for prosecutors to press criminal charges or private parties (plaintiffs) to file civil lawsuits to ask a court for money damages. The purpose of SOLs is to resolve disputes before evidence is lost, memories fade, and witnesses disappear.

Arkansas sets no time limits on criminal prosecutions for most serious sex offenses (like rape) and in cases in which DNA can provide evidence of the alleged perpetrator's identity.

In civil cases, advocates for survivors of sexual abuse have argued that SOLs are arbitrary and overly technical rules that prevent victims from obtaining justice, because victims typically wait years, often decades, before disclosing to others that they've been abused. According to CHILD USA, a national think tank for child protection, common reasons for delays in disclosing child sex abuse include:

  • trauma stemming from the sexual abuse
  • a lack of knowledge necessary to recognize sexual abuse
  • an inability to put their experience into words, and
  • the absence of trusted adults to talk to about the abuse.

For a long time, lawmakers didn't account for disclosure delays in sex abuse cases and allowed the civil SOL to act as a lock on the courthouse door, preventing most survivors of sexual abuse from having their day in court.

But now Arkansas has joined a growing movement to reform SOLs, by allowing vulnerable survivors more time to seek justice and compensation from their abusers. Thanks to SB 767, survivors in Arkansas now have until they are 55 years old (up from 21 years old under the old version of the law) to file a sexual abuse lawsuit.

Arkansas Creates a "Lookback Window" for Sex Abuse Lawsuits

In addition to increasing the SOL for sex abuse lawsuits, Arkansas gave all vulnerable survivors a second chance to try to recover for sex abuse-related harm by opening a two-year "lookback window."

During this two-year period (February 1, 2022 to January 31, 2024), most Arkansas sexual abuse lawsuits that were ineligible or expired under old statutes of limitation can be revived and filed in court.

For example, a former boy scout who stayed silent about being sexually abused by his Scoutmaster for 40 years now has a two-year window to file a lawsuit against his abuser and the Boy Scouts of America. Or, a student who was afraid to tell anyone that she was sexually abused by her middle school volleyball coach now has until she is 55 years old to file a lawsuit against her former coach and the school district that failed to protect her.

Resources for Arkansas Sexual Abuse Survivors

You can read the full text of SB 676 here (from the Arkansas legislature). For a list of organizations that help sexual abuse survivors and more details on a survivor's legal options, see Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.

RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. And the Crime Victims Association of Arkansas offers a list of local victim resources.

If you're a vulnerable survivor of sexual abuse who would like to know more about your legal options, talk to a lawyer who specializes in sex abuse lawsuits. Arkansas's lookback window is a second chance for thousands of survivors to get compensation (money damages) for their suffering and expose abusers and institutions that allowed the abuse. You can start by reading more about how a lawyer can help you and how to find the right lawyer for your case.

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