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News: Legislators again aim at statute of limitation

By Beth Miller
Originally published in The News Journal on Friday, January 26, 2007

Delaware lawmakers Thursday launched another effort to eliminate the civil statute of limitations on child-sexual abuse by adults.

Sen. Karen E. Peterson, D-Stanton, filed Senate Bill 29, known as the Child Victim’s Act, which would remove time constraints on civil lawsuits.

The bill is similar to efforts made early in last year’s session. Time ran out, though, as debate continued over the potential cost to the state if lawsuits against schools were permitted.

Also among the controversies last year was a provision that would allow victims of child-sexual abuse a two-year grace period to file claims even if they previously had been barred by the state’s statute of limitations.

Victim advocates argued that many child-sexual abuse victims do not reveal what happened to them for decades, preventing them from ever being able to seek damages in Delaware, where the civil limit is two years. Opponents of the provision argued that memories are less reliable as time passes, documents are harder to find — if they exist at all — and fairness suffers for all concerned. A substitute bill last year allowed 25 years from a person’s 18th birthday to file suit.

S.B. 29 also allows lawsuits against institutions — schools, churches and other agencies and businesses — if gross negligence by officials there allowed the abuse to occur. That provision was another sticking point last year because lawmakers weren’t sure how much such cases might cost the state.

“I have heard from victims of child-sexual abuse,” Peterson said. “We’ve heard about parents abusing kids, about family members, and about clergy abuse. … Not one person has said ‘I was in the custody of the state, and this is what happened to me.’ “

Falsely accused could get relief

The bill also provides relief for people falsely accused of child-sexual abuse if the allegations were made with malicious intent. If a court rules the person who brought the sexual-abuse allegations did so maliciously, the court would award attorney fees to the defendant.

“We know the credibility of the Delaware courts, and we have faith that they will be able to separate the cases that are valid and have true information about situations and events from the cases that are weak or have false accusations,” said Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Fairthorne.

In addition to Peterson, primary sponsors include Hudson, Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, who sponsored last year’s original bill, and Sen. David B. McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest. Peterson said 35 legislators already have signed on as co-sponsors.

“It’s a tough bill that addresses a serious, serious problem,” Lavelle said.”

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