Adults suing parents for abuse.
In Denver and elsewhere, child victims put an end to years of silence
By Beth Frerking
Denver Post Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON – When a Denver jury last week awarded two middle-aged sisters $2.3 million to compensate for years of physical and sexual abuse by their father, the case made front-page news.
The story underscored a changing fact of life: Until recently, relatively few adults have taken legal action against parents who abused them as children.
But such actions now are on the rise nationally, according to women’s legal defense associations, victim-assistance groups and lawyers who represent such victims.
And, as groups work to make it easier to prosecute such crimes, and as long-silent victims watch other victims take their cases to court, the public will see more adults who were abused as children seek legal remedies.
“It’s definitely a new trend,” said Sally Goldfarb, staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
“It goes hand-in-hand with the fact that, as a society, we are increasingly recognizing the enormous extent and tragic consequences of child sexual abuse.”
In the Denver case, sisters Sharon Simone, 45, and Susan Hammond, 44, sued their father, former Colorado Springs law enforcement officer Edward Rodgers, 72, for abuse that had occurred between 1944 and 1965.
The sisters faced an obstacle that typically hinders adult victims of child sexual abuse; status of limitations. In Colorado, a plaintiff must bring a civil suit within two years of the crime.Long-silent physical-abuse victims now suing parents
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“However, the Denver jury removed that barrier by determining that the sisters became aware of their injuries only during the past two years through therapy.
“Most states also have time limits on criminal prosecution of felonies. In some, the period commences from the time the assault occurred. In others, it begins when a child reaches a certain age, usually the age of majority, between 16 and 21.
“In Colorado, the statue of limitations on a criminal charge runs 10 years from when the assault occurred — and that’s generous. The average is closer to seven years amount states that start the clock from the time of the assault.
Groups such as the National Victim Center in Fort Worth, Texas, the NOW Legal Defense fund and the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, VA., are lobbying to change laws so victims have more time to file criminal or civil actions against their abusers.
“The trend is to extend these statutes, both in criminal and civil law,” said Patricia Toth, director of the child-abuse prosecution center in Alexandria.
Specialists in the field of child abuse say victims need extra time to file charges or lawsuits because it takes years, even decades, to exhume childhood and adolescent memories of physical and sexual abuse. Victims say they had to repress those incidents in order to survive.
Jay Howell, a Jacksonville, Fla., attorney who specializes in child sexual-abuse cases, said victims are typically between ages 20 and 40 before they decide “that they want to seek some justice.”
Some states have slowly modified statues of limitation to reflect the inherent differences between child sexual abuse and other types of assault.
But even after victims face their pasts through therapy and counseling, many do not realize they might have ways to seek legal redress. So publicity about child sexual-abuse cases plays a critical role in encouraging other victims to at least investigate whether legal action might be possible, specialists say.
In recent Maryland case, Michael Smith, 29, and his sister, Lisa Smith Clark, 28, had privately discussed their abuse as children at the hands of their parents, Ralph Leon and Betty Smith.
They thought they were the only two of the eight Smith children who were abused. Clark was forced to have intercourse with her father beginning at age 12, and Michael Smith testified that he had sexual relations with his mother from the time he was 10.
Eventually, another sister confessed that she had been abused. Meanwhile, Michael Smith read news reports of another Maryland case, in which three adults successfully prosecuted their father for child sexual and physical abuse. “Until my brother, Michael, saw it in the newspaper, none of us knew it was illegal or that you could press charges years later,” said Clark, a registered nurse who now lives in Florida.
With that news, Lisa and Michael unraveled the stories of their other siblings. and six of the eight Smith children decided to file criminal charges, with Lisa and Michael as plaintiffs.
The Smith children were lucky. Maryland is one of the only four states that has no statue of limitations on felonies. They were represented by maryland Assistant Stat’s Attorney Cynthia Ferris, a veteran of child-abuse prosecutions.
Clark said she and her siblings were relieved and happy when their parents were brought to justice. but she said they have since received an unexpected bonus: letters and calls from other child sexual-abuse victims who now have the courage to seek legal remedies in their own cases.
“That’s the ultimate victory,” Clark said. “it just makes it all worthwhile going through al this pain and breaking open the secret.”