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Advocates ask lawmakers to end Iowa's time limit on filing child sex abuse lawsuits

Madeleine King
Advocates for people who were sexually abused as children are continuing to ask the Iowa Legislature to give survivors more time to bring lawsuits against their abusers.

Advocates for people who were sexually abused as children are continuing to ask the Iowa Legislature to give survivors more time to bring lawsuits against their abusers.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, hosted a virtual news conference Monday to continue her years-long push for this change. She said current law allows serial child rapists to continue harming children.

“Until the civil statute of limitations is fixed, our survivors of child sex abuse just don’t have access to justice,” Petersen said. “And I believe that that is absolutely wrong.”

Petersen said Republican leaders who control the Iowa Legislature should make it a priority to remove the time limit on filing lawsuits against people who commit sex crimes against minors.

Last year, Iowa lawmakers removed the state’s legal time limit on bringing criminal charges against people accused of sex crimes against children.

But advocates say changing the civil statute of limitations will help hold educational, religious and athletic institutions accountable for child sex abuse that happens on their watch.

Current law says Iowans can file a lawsuit regarding abuse they experienced as minors before they turn 19 years old. For abuse by a therapist, counselor or school employee, Iowans have up to five years to file a lawsuit after they leave the school or no longer see the therapist.

If Iowans discover injuries related to previous abuse after they turn 18, they have up to four years to file a lawsuit after the discovery.

Kylie DeWees said she was sexually abused by an Iowa school employee as a minor. She said she is close to graduating from law school, which is where she learned about the statute of limitations and that her time to file a lawsuit had already run out.

“The only way to expose the abusers and institutions that allowed it to occur is by putting pressure on lawmakers now to pass Senate File 32,” DeWees said.

She said this bill would push institutions to set higher standards to protect kids in Iowa.

Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, said the average age that people sexually abused as children come forward about their abuse is 52.

“Why should we have a public policy that allows sexual predators to walk free and be protected by the passage of time for the very silence that they create and cause in their victims?” Robb asked. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

She said Iowa is “way, way behind” many other states that have recently taken action to give more time for survivors to bring lawsuits against their abusers.

Petersen and some other state senators have tried for years to change the civil and criminal statute of limitations.

Earlier this year, a Senate subcommittee advanced a bill that would remove the civil statute of limitations only if the perpetrator was first convicted in criminal proceedings.

At the time, Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he added that requirement when it became clear a more expansive bill did not have majority support among Senate Republicans.

“This is based on conversations that I had with some of my colleagues that they would be open-minded to at least take this step forward,” Zaun said.

DeWees spoke at the hearing in January and said that bill would be detrimental to survivors because it would raise the standard of proof to seek some measure of justice.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter