A number of states have taken steps to expand the rights of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and assault. North Carolina joined the ranks in 2019 with the passage of the "Sexual Assault Fast Reporting and Enforcement Act" (SAFE Child Act).
In this article, we'll take a look at a few key sections of the SAFE Child Act, including:
Each state sets a firm limit—called the statute of limitations—on how much time a survivor has to file a civil lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse. The limit applies whether a survivor files a lawsuit against the abuse perpetrator or against another person, business, or institution that failed to prevent or put a stop to the abuse.
Until 2019, most survivors of childhood sexual abuse in North Carolina had only three years to file a lawsuit over their abuse, and the clock started ticking on the day they turned 18 years of age. Now, under the new statute of limitations rules created by the SAFE Child Act, most survivors can file a lawsuit against abusers until they reach 28 years of age.
Lawmakers in North Carolina extended the statute of limitations because research on child sex abuse has shown that survivors of abuse commonly wait years, even decades, to tell others that they've been victims of abuse. Now survivors who delay in disclosing abuse can still sue their alleged abusers and the churches, school districts, youth camps, and other organizations that may have failed to fulfill their legal duties to protect young people in their care.
The SAFE Child Act also increased the statute of limitations from two to 10 years for misdemeanor child abuse, including sexual battery and indecent liberties with a child. No statute of limitations applies for felony sexual abuse in North Carolina. Learn more about pressing criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse.
In addition to extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits, the SAFE Child Act created a two-year "lookback window." A lookback window is a period of time during which survivors can file a lawsuit no matter how long ago the alleged abuse took place. North Carolina's lookback window opened on January 1, 2020, and closed on December 31, 2021.
The window removed barriers for dozens of older survivors to sue organizations like the YMCA and the Boys Scouts. But the SAFE Child Act doesn't revive cases that had previously been dismissed based on the statute of limitations. For example, two men filed lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in 2014, saying that a former priest sexually abused them in the 1970s and 1980s. The lawsuit was dismissed based on the statute of limitations. The men tried to refile the lawsuit when the SAFE Child Act's lookback window opened, but a court ruled in May 2022 that the lookback window only applies to sex abuse survivors who hadn't previously sued.
In addition to extending filing deadlines and reviving old claims, North Carolina's SAFE Child Act also:
Prior to the SAFE Child Act, adults were only required to report child abuse when the abuser was in a parental role and in a residential setting. Now it's mandatory to report suspected abuse by any adult, including coaches, camp counselors, clergy members, and youth leaders.
If you are thinking about filing a lawsuit, talk to a local lawyer about your options. A lawyer can answer your questions about the SAFE Child Act and advocate for you in court. You can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free and find out more about how a lawyer can help you.