Sunday, February 13, 2022

Congress looks to expand statute of limitation for child sex abuse

In an effort to empower victims of child sex abuse, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended that the Senate pass a bill to give survivors unlimited time to file civil claims in federal court, reported Courthouse News Service.

The Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act would apply to more than a dozen federal child abuse offenses and has garnered bipartisan support within and outside of the committee.

While there's no federal criminal statute of limitations for prosecuting child sex abuse if the child is still alive or for 10 years after the abuse, there are limits as to when a survivor can file a civil claim in federal court.

In 2018, Congress extended the statute of limitations, allowing federal civil claims to be filed until the survivor turns 28 or 10 years after the discovery of the abuse.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who supports the legislation, said these timelines don't line up with how long it takes many survivors to process and understand their abuse, much less be willing to come forward about it in a public forum.

“Delayed disclosure has historically impacted survivors' path to the justice that they deserve. We can't deter children in any way from speaking out against their abusers," Grassley said. “ We know from the Larry Nasser case, and many other tragic examples that it can take years for survivors to muster up the courage to come forward. This bill sends a clear message to victims of these horrendous crimes that we see, we hear, and we support you.”

Democrat Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who co-sponsored the bill with Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, cited research from Child USA, a nonprofit focused on combatting child abuse and neglect, which estimates the average survivor is 52 years old when they finally report their abuse.

"Statutes of limitations remain an obstacle for many survivors," Durbin said.

The committee also favorably recommended a bill to the Senate that would target child sexual abuse and exploitation online by reforming section 230, a policy governing the internet that typically shields websites from being liable for posts by third parties.

The Earn It Act was first introduced in 2020 by Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.

Blumenthal and Graham's legislation would alter section 230 to make online platforms liable for content portraying child sexual abuse on their sites and establish a national commission of abuse survivors, researchers and law enforcement that will develop strategies for combatting online child abuse.

"Our goal is to tell the social media companies, 'Get involved and stop this crap. And if you don't take responsibility for what's on your platform, then section 230 will not be there for you.' It's never going to end until we change the game and this bill changes the game," Graham said.

While the proposal does not give websites the explicit duty to prevent such content from being posted, they would be held responsible if they are found to have knowledge of explicit and abusive content of children on their platform.

The bill has garnered broad support from both sides of the aisle and from members of the law enforcement community, but it's faced backlash from members of tech companies and civil rights organizations that warn the bill could endanger user privacy and free speech.

A group of more than 60 civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and GLAAD, sent a letter to the committee opposing the legislation, arguing it will end up functioning similarly to a 2017 revision of section 230 that intended to target online sex trafficking but has rarely prevented trafficking, according to research by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

"Providers will engage in over-broad censorship of online speech, especially content created by diverse communities, including LGBTQ individuals, whose posts are disproportionately labeled erroneously as sexually explicit," the letter warns.

Tech companies have argued the legislation would keep companies from using encryption to secure privacy on messages and user information out of fear of prosecution.

"A key distinction here is it doesn't prohibit use of encryption, doesn't create liability for using encryption, but the misuse of encryption to further illegal activity is what gives liability here," Blumenthal said in defense of the bill.

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