WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - There is a bill making its way through the North Carolina legislature, attempting to give greater protection to people who were sexually abused as children. The bill has bipartisan support, and could play a significant role in the civil lawsuit recently filed by victims of Michael Kelly, the New Hanover County Schools science teacher convicted of sex crimes against many of his own students.
Senate Bill 199 would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to come forward after they become adults. While there is no statute of limitations to pursue criminal charges for sex crimes, there is a three-year statute of limitations for victims to sue civilly, which goes into effect the day they turn 18. So victims in North Carolina who are older than 21 often have no remedy in civil court to pursue justice.
“Victims of sexual abuse, especially like with Mr. Kelly, he was abusing young boys. There is a lot of pressure for them to keep that quiet,” Joel Rhine, an attorney representing Kelly’s victims explained. “There is a stigma associated with it. Whether or not there should be, there is. And so it’s very difficult for these folks to come forward. So to try to expect someone who was abused at the age of 14, 15 years old to immediately come out and report this by the age of 21. That does not happen.”
The bill, sponsored by Lumberton Senator Danny Britt, would extend the age victims have to sue to 38. Similar legislation has already passed or is currently being considered across the country. Just this week, the Child Victims Act went into effect in New York, allowing victims of childhood sex crimes there a one-year window to file civil suit, regardless of their age now.
Versions of this bill have passed with overwhelming support in the North Carolina House and Senate. The challenge now is merging their differences into a comprehensive bill they can pass into law. On August 6, the Senate voted to work through those differences in conference, rather than just concur on changes made to the bill by the house. Senator Britt expects that conference to happen within the next two weeks.
“I think we need to make every effort as legislatures to ensure that our children are protected and our children are safe, and that if anybody victimizes our children, they don’t have the opportunity to victimize them further,” Britt, a Republican, said of his reason for sponsoring this bill.
“I’m in full support of it,” Senator Harper Peterson, a Wilmington Democrat, told WECT. “It’s multiple steps in the right direction. This is a serious issue throughout society, and I’m happy we’re taking a bipartisan approach. We’re a community that needs this legislation now. Obviously we have some major issues in our own community. Every sane, responsible member of our community should support this.”
Rhine said extending the time frame for victims to pursue civil litigation would give school administrators another reason to think twice before turning a blind eye to claims of teacher misconduct, as victims have alleged NHCS school administrators did when informed of Kelly’s concerning behavior more than a decade ago. Money recovered in a lawsuit could also help victims get the resources they need for counseling and therapy.
“We have clients who are suicidal. They are cutting, they are self-mutilating. They are terribly depressed. They need help,” Rhine said.
There is a ten year “statute of repose” that potentially extends the window for victims to sue by ten years, to the age of 28. But there is a lot of gray area defining when the statute of repose is triggered, which means childhood victims older than 21 still have legal hurdles to overcome before they can even get standing to sue. Unless this bill passes, older victims are simply out of luck in terms of civil remedies. Some of Kelly’s victims fall into that category.
“Those kids over the age of 28, right now they’re just witnesses [for our case]. But they should be compensated. We should be allowing them to go get counselors. We should allow them to have the resources necessary to deal with this,” Rhine said.
In addition to extending the statute of limitations, Senate Bill 199 to Strengthen Laws for Child Sex Abuse would expand the duty for adults to report crimes against juveniles to law enforcement, expand the statute of limitations for the misdemeanor offense of failing to report child abuse, protect children online from high-risk sex offenders, and require school personnel in grades kindergarten through 12th to receive regular training on how to identify and prevent sexual abuse.