Texas's Legal Options for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

In 2019, Texas doubled the amount of time survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to file a lawsuit against abusers and others.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

Over the past few years, several states have passed laws aimed at expanding the legal options of childhood sexual abuse survivors. Texas joined those ranks in 2019, giving survivors more time to take legal action against those responsible for their harm.

Texas Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse Cases

A statute of limitations is a law that limits how much time can pass before someone can bring legal action. One purpose of these laws is to safeguard the parties against the passage of time. The more time that goes by between an alleged wrong and a court case, the more evidence gets lost, and the more witnesses forget.

But a statute of limitations can also unfairly prevent plaintiffs from seeking a legal remedy. In particular, the right to file a lawsuit over sexual abuse can be lost, especially by those who were harmed as children. By the time these survivors are ready to face what happened, and seek justice against those responsible, the court might point to the statute of limitations and say it's loo late. Recent changes to Texas's statutes of limitations aim to remedy this situation.

Texas' Statute of Limitations for Civil Suits Over Sexual Abuse

Until changes to the law came in 2019, survivors of childhood sexual abuse had 15 years from their 18th birthday to file a civil lawsuit in Texas court. But thanks to HB 3809, this statute of limitations doubled. Now, survivors have 30 years from their 18th birthday to commence a civil action. (Learn more about filing a lawsuit over sexual abuse that occurred a long time ago.)

HB 3809 went into effect on September 1, 2019 and not only allows survivors to sue the perpetrator(s) of the sex crime, but also institutions and other culpable entities that had involvement.

For instance, a school, church, or community organization that enabled or protected the abuser can also face civil liability for the sexual abuse or assault. Earlier drafts of this law only applied the statute of limitation extension to individuals. But this loophole was thankfully closed before it got to the governor's desk for signature.

No Retroactive Application of HB 3809. One of the biggest drawbacks of Texas's new filing rules is that they don't apply retroactively or create the kind of temporary "lookback window" that some state legislatures created for abuse survivors. If the old statute of limitations stopped a childhood sexual abuse survivor from bringing a lawsuit, HB 3809 did not revive the survivor's right to sue for harm resulting from the abuse.

When the Defendant Isn't Identifiable

There may be situations where the childhood survivor of a sex crime wants to take civil action against the perpetrator, but can't identify them. If this happens, the survivor may start a lawsuit, but file it against "John Doe" or "Jane Doe."

After filing the Doe complaint, the plaintiff must take reasonable steps to identify the defendant. Once they identify the defendant, they can amend the complaint to replace John or Jane Doe with the defendant's real name. Plaintiffs will need to act fast, as they must amend their complaints within 30 days of learning the real name of the perpetrator.

Texas's Criminal Statute of Limitations for Sexual Assault/Abuse

If a sex crime involves a minor, the criminal statute of limitations is either 20 years from the survivor's 18th birthday, or there is no statute of limitations and a prosecutor can bring criminal charges at any time.

Under Texas criminal law, the following crimes (among others) have no statute of limitations:

  • continuous sexual abuse of a child
  • sexual assault of a child
  • aggravated sexual assault of a child
  • indecency with a child

The following crimes have a statute of limitations of 20 years from the survivor's 18th birthday:

  • sexual performance by a child
  • aggravated kidnapping with intent to commit sexual offense
  • burglary of habitation with intent to commit sexual offense

There are two things to keep in mind about these time limits. In Texas, the age of consent is 17. So Texas criminal law defines a "child" as an individual who is younger than 17 years of age. Also, any time the defendant spends outside the state of Texas will not count towards calculating the period of limitations.

Learn more about criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse.

More Survivors' Rights In Texas

If the plaintiff is a minor when filing a civil suit, they may use a pseudonym. Also, regardless of what type of civil or criminal action they decide to take, survivors of sexual assault or abuse can go to court to obtain a protective order against the perpetrator.

The survivor may ask for a protective order, but the request can also come from the survivor's parent or guardian. A protective order often lasts for two years, but lifetime orders are possible.

When you're ready to reach out for help of any kind after childhood sexual abuse, there are support resources available, including the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA). You might also want to discuss your situation with a Texas attorney. You can make a confidential connection using the chat tools on this page, or learn more about finding the right attorney for you, and how a lawyer can help.

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