Washington DC's Legal Options for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

Washington D.C. has expanded the legal options of childhood sexual abuse survivors, in both civil and criminal courts.

A growing number of states have changed their laws concerning childhood sexual abuse, expanding the legal options of those seeking justice against their abusers and institutions that enabled abuse. Washington, DC joined this trend when it passed the Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act of 2018, changing the deadlines by which a person must take legal action over harm caused by sexual abuse.

Statutes of Limitations and Childhood Sexual Abuse Cases

A statute of limitations sets a deadline by which a civil or criminal action must be started in court. Every state has these laws in place, and they exist in part to protect defendants and the integrity and efficiency of the court process. When too much time passes between the date of an alleged wrongdoing and the onset of legal proceedings, evidence can get lost, memories can fade, and fairness (for both sides of a lawsuit or criminal proceeding) can be compromised. As a remedy, legislatures have enacted various statutes of limitations for different crimes and civil wrongs, including legal actions relating to the civil and criminal prosecution of childhood sex abuse.

A problem inherent to the statute of limitation as it applies to childhood sexual abuse is that trauma like this often takes years (even decades) to process. By the time a survivor feels ready to cooperate in a criminal prosecution or file a lawsuit against those responsible for their abuse, the statute of limitations deadline may well have passed.

Learn more about filing a lawsuit over abuse that happened a long time ago.

Washington DC's Criminal Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse

For the majority of sex crimes involving harm to children, Washington, DC no longer has a statute of limitations in place, including most instances of sexual abuse of a child in the school or institutional setting.

Note that there are some time limits still in place for criminal charges over a number of offenses, including charges of "enticing a child for the purpose of committing felony sexual abuse", "using a minor in a sexual performance or promoting a sexual performance by a minor," and certain prostitution-related charges, which must be filed within 10 years.

Before the Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act of 2018 went into effect in 2019, the longest statute of limitations window relating to criminal prosecution for child sexual abuse-related offenses was 15 years.

Learn more about pressing criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse.

How Much Time Do Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Have to Sue In DC?

The answer here depends on the survivor's age when the abuse occurred. If the abuse took place when the potential plaintiff was under 35 years of age, then they must file suit before they turn 40.

If the abuse occurred when the potential plaintiff was 35 years of age or older, they have five years from the most recent instance of the abuse to bring a civil suit against the abuser and others who failed to prevent or put a stop to the abuse, including institutions like churches and youth organizations.

Regardless of when the sexual abuse occurred, the survivor will always have at least five years from the time they knew (or reasonably should have known) that they were harmed by sexual abuse to get their lawsuit filed. Whichever deadline gives the prospective plaintiff more time to file will apply.

Before these changes, Washington, DC's statute of limitations gave survivors just seven years after they turned 18 to take legal action. Alternatively, they had three years from the point they knew, or should have known, about the sexual abuse to file suit. No matter the circumstances, survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Washington, DC now have a minimum of two extra years to sue those responsible.

Do Washington, DC's New Laws Apply Retroactively?

Yes, but only to a limited extent. Concerning criminal actions, the new law applies retroactively, but not if the prior statute of limitations for the crime has already passed. In other words, if the old criminal statute of limitations prevented a prosecutor from filing charges, the new law would not revive the case.

As for civil suits, the new law allowed certain previously time-barred civil cases to proceed, but the plaintiff had to bring suit within two years after the new law went into effect. The law was enacted in May 2019, so this two-year deadline passed in May 2021, meaning that any retroactivity provision of DC's new statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits has expired.

Resources for Washington, DC Sexual Abuse Survivors

For more help, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse. Additional DC-specific resources can be found at Safe Shores: The DC Children's Advocacy Center. To report possible sexual abuse of a child, contact the Child and Family Services Agency of Washington, DC. And if you're ready to discuss your options with a nearby attorney, utilize 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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