The moment after a child is abused, a clock starts ticking.
Statutes of limitations exist in every state across the U.S. They prevent prosecutors from charging someone with a crime if it was committed more than a specified number of years ago, and that number can vary based on the type of crime and the state where it happened.
In Arizona, advocates for survivors of childhood sexual abuse recently found success in the state legislature with the Arizona Child Protection Act. This law extends the amount of time survivors have to take civil action against their abusers from two years to 12 years. These individuals have until the age of 30 to file a claim.
Bridie Farrell, a New York resident, worked closely with Arizona legislators last session to pass this bill. It’s part of her personal mission to advocate for other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Farrell was 15 years old when she participated in the 1998 Olympic Trials for speedskating. Around the same time, Olympic speedskater Andrew Gabel moved to her hometown in New York to train, and soon began molesting her. He was 33 years old at the time.
Farrell endured months of sexual abuse at his hands until she was 16 years old.
“I didn’t come forward because I didn’t want to bring shame to my family, I didn’t want my parents to take me out of speedskating,” Farrell said at a recent town hall in Tucson. “I was super confused.”
Gabel eventually left her town to be the president of USA Speedskating, then he moved on to run the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, then the International Skating Union.
In New York, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse is 12 months. By the time Bridie understood that what had happened to her as a child was a crime, she was a 26-year-old student at Cornell University. Her chance to press charges was long gone.
“We have one year to come forward and talk about the worst moments of our life in front of an attorney, a judge, a courtroom for the media to see,” she said.
Now 37, Farrell had a hand in passing both the Child Victims Act in New York and the Child Protection Act in Arizona. She founded NY Loves Kids, an organization dedicated to “ending the silence and inaction surrounding this disturbing topic” and has turned it into a national campaign.
The Child Protection Act also allows survivors who did not have the opportunity to take civil action for their abuse, due to the previous two-year limit, to bring a claim against their perpetrator until December 31, 2020.
In addition, the new law allows civil action to be taken against an organization that knew about the sexual conduct and failed to intervene. Farrell said this component is a huge step forward, since other states who extended their statute of limitations have barred survivors from holding the institutions that they deem complicit accountable.
Farrell recalled that Gabel, her abuser, was the subject of a 1990 investigation from Northern Michigan University regarding rumors of his sexual relations with minors in the speedskating industry.
No further action was taken after the investigation.
Officials claimed the allegations against him couldn’t be substantiated, and Gabel continued to participate in the sport.
“Our paths should have never crossed,” Farrell said.
She believes the systems that allow for abuse to occur are not going to change until survivors are ready to come forward and have a chance to explain what happened to them.
At the town hall, State Rep. Alma Hernandez (D LD-3) shared her support for the Child Protection Act, saying it was a “no-brainer.” Although the bill passed unanimously, Hernandez said there was pushback from some legislators who felt the extension would bring about “frivolous lawsuits” and would line the pockets of trial attorneys.
“I couldn’t understand how people were opposing it,” Hernandez said.
Even with the passage of this new law, Hernandez and the others do not believe it does enough. They want to continue pushing for the statute of limitations to be extended further. Hernandez said she would be happy if there were no limitation at all.
“We recognize that it’s courageous for an adult to come forward [after sexual assault], but how can a child?” said Farrell. “I didn’t know I was the victim of a crime, I didn’t know the words to use for what happened, it really just takes time and safety to be able to come forward and share.”
Marie Fordney, executive director of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, which hosted the town hall, said “stranger danger” is a false notion because 95 percent of childhood sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone the child knows.
She said it’s important to teach children about self-autonomy and personal boundaries early on in school. If kids can understand which behaviors are wrong, then adults can know when to alert authorities of potential abuse.
Arizona’s mandatory disclosure law—which Fordney calls “amazing”—requires any adult who learns of a child’s abuse to report it to a peace officer or the Department of Child Safety.
Sarah Wampler, a school counselor with the Marana Unified School District, said every adult should know if they find out something suspicious about how a child is being treated, they don’t have to investigate it, just report it.
“I know there’s lots of hesitation about what if this isn’t true or what if that’s not what they meant, and you just have to ignore those doubts because we’re talking about a child and their life and their safety,” Wampler said. “If you stumble across even something so seemingly insignificant, there could be so much there and you can’t risk not addressing that.”
Teaching kids just about the “no-no square” is not enough, according to Victoria Otto, a deputy attorney with the Pima County Attorney’s Office. She believes it’s important for parents to tell their children about other trusted adults in their community that they can talk to if something has happened to them.
“We know that kids have so many concerns and fears about coming forward,” Otto said. “Is my mom going to be sad? Is my mom going to think that I did something wrong? Is my dad going to think that I’m ruined? That I can’t get married anymore?”
On the opposite side of that coin, Otto said it’s equally important that officers in smaller police departments receive trauma training. She said they need to understand that not every abused child is going to be visibly upset over what happened to them, and they may even try to conceal it.
Alan Goodwin, also a deputy county attorney, said it’s crucial that the state restore funding for child and family advocacy centers. Without them, the abused child has to walk through a police station, disclose the worst day of their life to a stranger in an interview room, then they might have to go to a hospital and undergo an exam, then they might have to pack up and go to yet another unfamiliar place to receive therapy.
If a child advocacy center is available, all of those necessary steps happen in one designated place that centers the safety and comfort of the child.
“It’s really hard having an abused kid get up on the witness stand and tell a room full of people what happened,” Goodwin said. “But for a lot of kids, if you do it the right way, at the end of the day they come off the stand and we hear them say things like ‘I’m not scared anymore,’ or ‘I was awesome up there today.’”