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Judges deem NC law addressing child sex abuse unconstitutional

Judges deem NC law addressing child sex abuse unconstitutional
Published: Dec. 22, 2021 at 10:20 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 22, 2021 at 4:20 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A law passed years ago to protect victims of sexual assault ran into a problem this week.

Senate Bill 199, known as the SAFE Child Act, passed unanimously in 2019. It modernized child abuse laws and extended the statute of limitation for victims to file civil suits from age 21 to age 28.

It also opened a two-year timeframe, called a revival window, where previously expired sex abuse claims could be filed.

On Monday, a panel of three judges ruled the revival window provision was unconstitutional and that the state constitution bars the legislature from reopening the statute of limitations.

The judges stressed that they felt bound by precedent and suggested that the issue may be better suited for the North Carolina Supreme Court to consider instead of the panel. The matter now moves to the state supreme court, where leaders there will decide whether or not to uphold the 2019 law.

“I am disappointed with this decision,” said Attorney General Josh Stein, who championed the SAFE Child Act. “I continue to believe it is constitutional, and will continue to defend the law if the decision is appealed.”

The judges’ decision put a stop to many civil lawsuits in the state that hinged on the “revival window.”

The legal team behind the civil lawsuit against the New Hanover County School Board and former teacher Michael Kelly says their case will still continue on no matter what the court decides.

Attorney Martin Ramey confirms they will still be going to trial because there are victims who filed before their 21st birthday, meaning they’re well within the statute of limitation.

“There will be answers. There will be accountability,” said Martin Ramey of Rhine Law Firm. “You have to remember the survivors. Our clients, over the course of two and a half years, they’ve grown and they’ve developed and they’ve felt empowered because they came forward and they made their claim. At the same time, we have people who are distraught because they’ve lived lives that have been torn apart by divorce; they’ve lost their family, there’s been one death in this case. This is really important — this is real and people need to understand that this should not happen and people should focus on survivors — when somebody tells you that they have been a victim of abuse, believe them. Encourage them to do something about it.”

Ramey has been fighting with other lawyers across the state against challenges to the 2019 law for about a year now so he wasn’t exactly surprised when the ruling came down Monday.

Ramey says he was disheartened to hear about the most recent ruling, but is hopeful the supreme court will allow this 2019 law that’s been so critical to so many victims to stay in place.

“You consider that the average age of a survivor coming forward and reporting abuse is 52 and at that time, the statute of limitations for someone to sue was 21, so countless numbers of victims went for decades without feeling comfortable or feeling they’re able to report, and then to be shut out of court was a big thing. So when Cooper signed the law, it was really important to those people to go back and have their day in court,” said Ramey.

The legal team is wrapping up discovery now ahead of the civil court trial scheduled for September 26, 2022.

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