Over the past four months, 12 civil lawsuits have been filed across six states on behalf of 21 ex-students, who allege they were victims of a pervasive culture of drugs, pornography, and sexual abuse in the world of competitive cheerleading.
Defendants include five elite gyms, 15 coaches and two dance choreographers. The individual coaches, some of whom have already been terminated and/or criminally prosecuted, are accused of various types of child sexual abuse.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say they expect many more lawsuits in the coming months.
The first suit was filed in September 2022 against Scott Foster, owner of South Carolina’s Rockstar Cheer and Dance. It alleges that he and other coaches there sexually abused at least six students and gave them drugs and alcohol.
Eight years ago, one of those students, just 13 years old at the time, told her mother one coach had forced her to perform oral sex on him.
“I paid for someone to murder my daughter’s childhood,” the mother told NPR.
Rockstar closed down shortly after the lawsuit. A month prior, Foster died by suicide after learning he was being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for child pornography.
Three more lawsuits have been filed against Rockstar since the original; they suggest there could be up to 100 more abuse survivors.
The most recent suit, filed in December, concerns a former cheerleader at California’s CheerForce Simi Valley gym, who says her coach gave her drugs and alcohol before forcing her to have sex with him.
She was 15 at the time and too frightened to report what happened, but she finally filed a report in 2021 with the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), cheerleading’s governing body. She said USASF officials dismissed her concerns in a “deeply traumatizing and unsettling” process.
In Ohio, a former male cheerleader said two male choreographers forced him into sex as a teenager. He, too, was dismissed by USASF for what they called a lack of evidence.
Erick Kristianson, a coach at a now-closed Florida gym, is included in three of the lawsuits. Two sisters and ex-students say he touched them inappropriately and exposed himself to them on Facetime video and in person. One of the girls recorded the Facetime calls because she was afraid no one would believe her.
The girls and their family had a close relationship with Kristianson, even allowing him to temporarily move into an apartment on their property when he needed a place to stay.
Kristianson was charged in August 2022 on felony counts of molesting victims under 16 and lewd and lascivious exhibition. His pre-trial conference is scheduled for this April.
He and one other coach in Georgia are the only defendants charged with criminal acts thus far.
The remaining lawsuits were filed over similar allegations in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Also named in the suits are USASF and Varsity, a multibillion-dollar commercial company that controls at least 80% of the cheerleading market. They are accused of “knowing their young vulnerable members were at risk and they were doing nothing about removing the criminal coaches, affiliates, gym owners, and administrators.”
Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits: Criminal v. Civil
Someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds; that person is a child every nine minutes. And just 310 out of every 1,000 instances of sexual assault are reported.
Most sexual abuse survivors choose not to report their assailants. Some fear retaliation; others assume they won’t be taken seriously. But those who do come forward have the opportunity to seek justice from their assailant by filing a civil lawsuit.
A civil lawsuit is usually more beneficial for the survivor than a criminal lawsuit. While a criminal case is generally brought by the state, a civil suit is simply the survivor against the perpetrator, creating direct accountability. The plaintiff in a civil case can decide whether to accept a settlement, whereas they don’t have that power in a criminal suit.
The alleged crime also has a much higher burden of proof in a criminal case. Prosecutors must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed; in a civil suit, they must only prove that the crime is more likely than not to have occurred.
Finally, the survivor in a civil case will likely receive much more comprehensive compensation for medical bills, therapy, relocation expenses, and pain and suffering.
Most crimes have a statute of limitations – the period of time in which the survivor may bring a lawsuit. These vary by state, and plaintiffs should consult an experienced sex abuse attorney before pursuing a lawsuit.
In child sex abuse cases, the majority of survivors wait years or decades to come forward. This is typically due to the mental and emotional trauma they sustained during the assault. In the past, waiting that long meant they were well past their state’s statute of limitations and could not pursue justice.
Over the past few years, many states enacted “look-back windows” for survivors of child sex abuse, which pause the statute of limitations and allow them to file a suit, regardless of when the incident occurred.
Also, in October 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act into law. This law eliminated the federal statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors. Prior to its passage, they could only file federal civil lawsuits until they turned 28 years old or within ten years after their abuse was discovered.
Now in many cases, survivors of child sex abuse can wait until they’re ready to seek justice.