Two things happened last month that reflect the reckoning taking place for sexual abuse occurring in this country. First, Boy Scouts of America declared bankruptcy, facing more than 300 lawsuits in response to childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by BSA volunteers.
In their statement, BSA noted how sincerely sorry they are for the abuse and how outraged they are for “times when individuals took advantage of our programs to harm innocent children.” It appears the BSA feels it too has been victimized by those with nefarious intent. What the statement does not reflect is accountability for the harm the BSA itself has caused by failing to report the abuse to law enforcement, though they documented it in more than 7,000 “perversion” files.
The second thing that happened was the move of SF3032 from committee to the full Iowa Senate. This bill eliminates the statute of limitations for criminal action in sexual abuse and assault cases. In play too is whether the statute of limitations in civil court should also be revised, giving survivors opportunities to seek redress for past abuse when other legal options are not possible.
It remains unclear how these bills will take shape, but one thing is certain — while many of us got into this work believing measures to help survivors of sexual trauma would be broadly supported, there are definitely forces that work against the best interests of survivors.
At Riverview Center, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office contracted provider of crisis response, advocacy, and therapy services for survivors of sexual trauma in 14 counties including Black Hawk, we serve those in situations such legislation addresses. Many clients have carried for decades the trauma they experienced during childhood.
Given one in four girls and one in six boys experiences sexual abuse before 18 (National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and given the average age at which someone discloses this abuse is 52 (Child USA), the unaddressed trauma of those around us is immeasurable, as is the toll it takes on survivors’ physical and mental health.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are four times more likely to develop symptoms of drug abuse and addiction and four times more likely to develop debilitating-level symptoms of PTSD. They are three times more likely to experience major depressive episodes, with sexual abuse being highly correlated with suicidal ideation. In short, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffer greatly.
Why don’t survivors report sooner? Ninety-three percent are harmed by those they know and love. More than 50% are trusted acquaintances, including friends, religious leaders, scout volunteers, or neighbors. (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
Imagine how complicated reporting is. Often confidantes do not believe the child that the abuse occurred; often disclosure brings estrangement between the survivors and their support networks at a time when survivors need support the most. The cost of telling is often too much to bear.
It is critical the Iowa Legislature eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases of childhood sexual abuse because many powerful organizations such as school districts, churches, etc. are registering their opposition to this legislation, fearful of the financial hardship it could cause them.
It is exactly because organizations like the BSA have the option to declare bankruptcy that survivors must be able to “look back” and report, given all the forces that made it impossible for them to do so before. Denying them the opportunity to report when it is the right time for them is tantamount to silencing those harmed and suffering.
As we at Riverview Center have learned from the brave clients we serve, being heard and being believed is the most critical step in their journey to heal.
Gwen Bramlet-Hecker of Waterloo is program director for Riverview Center, which provides crisis and long-term support services for survivors of sexual trauma.
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