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Opinion | Extend right of Michigan child sex assault survivors to sue

In recent years, Michigan has become a poster child for shocking examples of large-scale sexual abuse of children and young adults, as the horrific crimes of Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan have come to light. Countless other survivors, whose abusers are not public figures, have gone unrecognized in the media.

Elizabeth Abdnour
Elizabeth Abdnour is a Lansing-based attorney and partner at AW Law.

While the Michigan Legislature made a temporary exception for Nassar’s victims, the state’s current statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual assault is frustratingly narrow. Survivors can only file civil lawsuits until they are 28 years old — one of the most restrictive policies in the country. That means that too many survivors are denied access to justice and the opportunity to hold their abusers accountable. 

As an attorney who has dealt with many cases of childhood sexual assault — and as a long-time board member of The Firecracker Foundation in Lansing, which provides holistic healing services for children who have experienced sexual trauma — I’ve seen firsthand how this restriction prevents valid claims from going forward. 

Many victims of sexual assault can take years to process their abuse. In fact, the average victim of child sex abuse is 52 years of age by the time they report what happened to them, according to Child USA, a national nonprofit that fights to prevent child abuse and neglect. Tragically, the Department of Justice estimates that 86 percent of child sexual abuse goes unreported, due to trauma, power dynamics and institutions that protect abusers. 

Thankfully, the Michigan Legislature is finally on the cusp of taking consequential action. A new bill, introduced by State Rep. Julie Brixie of Meridian Township, would extend the civil statute of limitations, allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims until they are 52 years old. The bill also includes a two-year amnesty period, effective after the law is enacted, that will allow anyone to file lawsuits against their abusers, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

Similar bills have been introduced in past sessions of the state legislature, only to languish due to fierce opposition from the very institutions that protected and enabled abusers, such as universities, churches and other organizations concerned with their financial liability, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

That’s shameful. We can’t let it happen again. 

Childhood sexual abuse has a deep and long-lasting effect on survivors. Survivors are frequently diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many have difficulty forming healthy romantic relationships. Self-harm and suicide attempts can result. The economic impact of this type of abuse can be devastating as survivors find themselves unable to maintain steady employment. Our state has a responsibility and an obligation to give survivors the tools they need to heal and to provide an avenue for authentic and meaningful justice. 

For too long, Michigan has failed survivors of child sexual abuse. These bills represent a huge first step toward bringing Michigan in line with other states that protect the rights of abuse survivors. It’s the least we can do for those who have had so much taken from them. 

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