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Statute of limitations (SOL) on a court desk.

What Are Sex Abuse Look-Back Windows?

When a crime is committed, there is a limited period of time afterward when the crime can be reported to the authorities and charges filed. In most states, there are statutes of limitations that limit the time when someone can be charged with a crime. In many child sexual abuse cases, those who experienced the horrific crimes may not be ready to come forward until they are much older. Countless studies have shown that the average age of a child sexual abuse victim is 52 years old when they disclose they were abused as a child. Unfortunately, this means that the statute of limitations has most likely expired before the abuse is finally reported. 

In the case of children, there are countless reasons why they may not disclose the abuse to someone they trust. These reasons may include the abusive adult convincing the child that others will not believe them or that the child is somehow responsible for the abuse and could be punished. 

Several states have begun to institute look-back windows. Look-back windows are periods where a state’s statute of limitations is paused, allowing those who have experienced child sexual abuse an opportunity to report their experience and seek justice. Many states have opened look-back windows. Experts expect that one in five victims of child sexual abuse will now have the opportunity to file lawsuits against those who abused them and those who concealed the crimes.

Look-back windows or changes to the statute of limitations laws allow adult sex abuse survivors more time to sue an individual who molested them and any institution who hid or ignored the abuse, regardless of when any abuse occurred. 

Related: Sexual abuse victims get new chances to come forward

Why Have Look-Back Windows Been Introduced?

Childhood sexual abuse has horrifying effects on those who experienced the abuse. The trauma may contribute to a lifetime of challenges. Look-back windows give survivors a chance to find justice and file a civil lawsuit.

“Charging and convict{ing} child molesters is tough. So the next best way to protect kids is to expose the criminals who assault them. Thankfully, many legislators are coming to this realization,” shared Zach Hiner, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) with Ms. Magazine.

These “‘Window’ laws also deter abuse and cover up,” he added. “Employers and supervisors hate the thought of being deposed and dragged into court to defend their reckless and callous behavior, so every one of these lawsuits is a clear, stern warning to decision-makers who may be tempted to be lax with kids’ safety.”

According to ChildUSA, the national think tank for ending child abuse and neglect, look-back windows help everyone, not just those abused. They help by educating the public about the signs of abuse, prevalence, and impact of child sexual abuse to prevent future incidents. These windows shift the cost of abuse from those who experienced it. Look-back windows help identify hidden child predators and institutions that put children at risk. And, public identification helps protect other children from abuse. With more people aware of cases of child sexual abuse, the opportunities for predators to abuse children vastly decrease.

In 44 states, the District of Columbia, the Federal government and U.S. territories have eliminated criminal statutes of limitations for some or all child sexual abuse cases. Expanding from criminal statutes of limitations, 15 states and Guam have eliminated civil statutes of limitations for some or all child sexual abuse cases. Finally, look-back window opportunities and age limit revival laws for expired civil child abuse claims were available in 24 states and Guam. It’s important to note that some states’ look-back windows have recently closed, such as New York. 

If you or a loved one experienced sexual assault as a child, support is available from advocacy organizations such as RAINN, MaleSurvivor and 1in6. These organizations offer ways to find peer support, specialized therapists and 24/7 anonymous chat helplines. Seeking legal advice can also help sex abuse survivors to heal and seek justice against their perpetrators. Child sexual abuse is horrific and continues to happen to thousands of children through no fault of their own. Look-back windows and changes to the statute of limitations have put the opportunity for healing and justice into the hands of those who have been abused.