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Child abuse statute of limitations extended in Massachusetts

Date: 7/16/2014

BOSTON – Gov. Deval Patrick recently signed into law a bill to extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits filed by victims of sexual abuse as children.

On June 26, Patrick signed House bill 4126 into law after it received unanimous support from the House of Representatives and the state Senate the previous week.

State Sen. Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham, Senate vice-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which sponsored the bill, explained the purpose was to give a voice to those abused who may not have had the ability to deal with the pain at the time.

“So many times these people grow up and realize the irreparable harm that was done to them and they have tremendous desire and interest to confront in a court of law their abuser and get justice and compensation from their perpetrator,” she said.

Before the bill was signed, a suit had to be filed within three years of the incident, within three years of the alleged victim turning 18 or three years from discovery that an emotional or psychological condition was caused by the abuse.

Under the new law, civil charges can be filed against an alleged abuser up to 35 years after the victim turns 18, or their 53rd birthday, and extends the statute of limitations from three years to seven years after a psychological condition resulting from the abuse is diagnosed.

Candaras explained that in many of these abuse cases involving children, it would be extremely difficult to achieve satisfaction through the criminal court system because of its need for reasonable doubt to convict.

“A civil claim in a superior court in the Commonwealth would have a less onerous standard of proof,”?she said, adding that as opposed to a criminal trial, in a civil case, plaintiffs can seek relief in the form of compensation for pain and suffering or lost wages as well as punitive damages.

While the bill was supported unanimously, Candaras explained that its acceptance as law was a long time coming, explaining that the bill had effects on other parts of state law that needed to be addressed.

“It’s a highly technical piece of legislation that involved everything from discovery rules to statutes of limitations to evidentiary rules to even businesses buying businesses because you can sue private organizations,”?she said. “There were a tremendous number of issues that were raised in terms of developing this legislation. It was a long and hard and very onerous process to make sure we were not going to create chaos in other areas of the law.”

Candaras and William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said past victims still attempting to seek justice were especially influential in the passing of the legislation.

Longmeadow resident Lisa Foster, a mother of two who claimed she was abused from the time she was 8 to 14 years old and developed Dissociative Identity Disorder that prevented her from coming to terms with her abuse until 2010, was one of the bill’s advocates, testifying at the Judiciary Committee hearing in Boston on May 7, 2013.

“On [June 20, after the House and Senate votes] I went to a birthday party for one my son's friends. I was standing in the front lawn watching a group of them play wiffle ball and thought to myself, ‘The world just got safer for you,’” Foster said in an email to Reminder Publications. “[On June 26] it was made official in very moving speech and signing by the governor and legislators who put their hearts into its passing. I feel like in that signing a wave of good swept over our state, and into all of our lives.”

Brownsberger credited Foster and others like her for their work in making the bill a reality.

"Lisa Foster is among those brave survivors of sexual child abuse who have chosen to tell their story publicly,” he said. “They are the ones who taught the legislature about the need for reform. Without the courage of Lisa and other survivors, this reform just wouldn't have happened.”

Candaras added, “It’s those people who courageously told their stories that helped inform our decision-making.”

Candaras cited Kathy Picard, a Ludlow native, as another pivotal figure in not only educating other lawmakers on the struggles victims face, but also acting as a compass for her and the community regarding abuse issues.

“Throughout the years that we have been working on this, Kathy Picard has been a constant in my life,” Candaras said. “She has worked with us on this legislation and shared many times with me the story of her victimization and how it has affected her life and her marriage and her career choices.”