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Survivors, advocates worry about potential change to sex assault statute of limitations bills

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

There are two bills still working their way through the Legislature, one in the Senate, SB 5649, and another in the House, HB 1231, that would eliminate the statute of limitations for eight sex crimes involving victims 16 and under, including rape, molestation, and exploitation while extending them to 20 years for most sex crimes involving victims 16 and older.

Rep. Dan Griffey is behind the House bill and has been fighting for years to get this done, sharing the very personal experience of his wife who was sexually abused as a child, and his daughter, who, 20 years later, survived a horrific attack.

“Our daughter was raped and left for dead in Anchorage, Alaska and the pain that I felt was terrible, but the pain and the shame that my wife felt by thinking she didn’t do enough to protect our daughter — we’ll never get over in our family,” Griffey said from the House floor in March.

Griffey knows just how hard it can be for sexual assault survivors to come forward. He had to push his daughter to go to police, but says by the time she did, it was too late and prosecutors said they couldn’t file a case. It was a similar situation with his wife, which is why Griffey says it is vitally important this legislation, which he’s pushed for more than 4 years, finally get passed this session, even if it is not as strong as he had originally hoped.

Griffey’s original bill

The original version of Griffey’s bill would have eliminated the statute of limitations altogether, but in order to give it a better chance of passing, Griffey pared his down to match the nearly identical version in the Senate.

Senator Manka Dhingra is behind the Senate version and says she introduced the bill after seeing the need to eliminate or extend the statute of limitations firsthand in her job as a King County prosecutor.

“It recognizes the science of trauma and how trauma is addressed by survivors and makes sure that we are making our laws consistent with the science of trauma and disclosure – when people feel comfortable talking about what has happened to them,” Dhingra said in a recent interview.

Getting to the point of being comfortable talking or reporting can take years for sexual assault survivors, especially for children.

“We also know historically that perpetrators who target minors tend to repeat the behavior over and over again, and because we are dealing with such vulnerable victims, we do want to make sure that whenever they’re in a space where they can talk about their abuse they should have the ability to do so. It really is an attempt to make sure we are going after the serial pedophiles,” Dhingra said.

Unlike Griffey’s bill, Dhingra’s version also changes the law surrounding Rape in the 3rd degree, which deals with consent, making it the favored version among many sexual assault survivors and advocates.

Dhingra’s bill

While Rape in the 1st and 2nd degree  can only be charged when there’s an obvious threat or force — such as a weapon being used– Rape in the 3rd degree centers more on instances of date rape or when a victim knows their rapist. Currently, the language of the law to prosecute essentially requires the victim to prove they said no — or that they fought back hard enough, which can be difficult, especially if the victim has been drugged by their attacker or plied with alcohol.

Dhingra’s bill removes that language.

“It’s about making sure that we don’t require the survivors to prove they said no,” Dhingra explained.

“This is a burden that is only placed basically on women in this context,” Dhingra added. “For no other crime in the criminal justice system do we say that the victim specifically has to say no before you can prosecute. We have to make sure that is erased from our books because we believe women.”

At this point, both bills have passed their individual chambers and are making their way through committees in the opposite chamber with committee votes set for both next week.

The effort to change the statute of limitations has made it further through the process than in years past, and Rep. Griffey is cautiously optimistic one or the other will cross the finish line.

Potential amendment

But now, after hearing about a potential amendment that could be added, sexual assault survivors and advocates are worried the bills could be derailed or watered down.

The potential amendment would still eliminate the statute of limitations for adult offenders who rape someone under the age of 16, as the original bill does, but not for rapists and molesters who were themselves minors when they committed the offense.

It’s an issue that Rep. Nicole Frame raised earlier in the session.

“If we raise the statute of limitations for juveniles when they commit offenses and they are brought to term for their crime, they’re held accountable for their crime when they’re 40, 50, 60 years old – what do we do with a 60-year-old who’s being prosecuted for a crime they committed when they were 14, 15 years old,?” Frame questioned on the House floor.

Now, after the hearing, Frame may try to introduce the amendment to exempt juvenile offenders from the elimination of the statute of limitations, sexual assault survivors and their advocates are voicing concerns.

At a committee hearing Thursday on the House version of the bill, women’s rights attorney David Ward with Legal Voice said this was not the bill to address the issue of juvenile offenders.

“I think that can be part of a discussion in another context because there are other crimes where that happen, too, — homicide, arson — and if there’s going to be a solution to that issue that the legislature wants to consider, please take that up outside of the context of this bill and move this bill this year because it really is so critical for survivors,” Ward pleaded to the panel.

Sexual assault survivor Leah Griffin agrees, and says adding the amendment to protect juvenile offenders sends the wrong message to victims.

“This is already one of the most — or the most — unreported crimes because people are afraid that their stories don’t matter and adding an amendment like this confirms that to victims whose rapists are under 18. It basically says that we, as a society, care more about the future of the person that assaulted you than we do about your future and ability to get justice,” Griffin said in a phone interview.

The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center also spoke out with concerns about the potential amendment.

“Survivors of sexual assault face a trauma that can be deep and long-lasting. Many survivors delay reporting, some for many years, due to this trauma. The state should not be setting a short and arbitrary deadline that presents a barrier to justice for those who report and whose case remains strong over time.”

“The language in this bill has been carefully crafted after several attempts have failed to extend and simplify the statute of limitations. Amending the proposal now would jeopardize the strong bipartisan support it has received in both the Senate and House so far,” the agency said in a statement.

“This bill is not about addressing consequences to the rapist,” Dhingra said. “This bill is about ensuring that survivors have a voice. We have seen this over and over again where institutions of power are more concerned about the consequences to the rapist. So my message here is very clear: This is about giving survivors a voice, it’s about updating our statute of limitations to be consistent with science… period.”

Asked about the potential amendment.

“I hope not, but I think this is why we have both vehicles [bills] alive in both the senate and the house. I’m glad people are talking about it, I think the more the message can be as clear that this is really about survivors the better it is,” Dhingra added.

Frame’s decision

Rep. Frame, a sexual assault survivor herself, understands the concerns about her potential amendment but says there are other conversations that need to happen surrounding this legislation.

Frame hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll introduce the amendment.

“ will say first and foremost I don’t think any amendment is going to derail the bill, I do think it will pass this year regardless of whether or not I add an amendment,” Frame said.

Frame said she would be having conversations with colleagues about the potential amendment ahead of next week’s committee votes on the bills and that it would not be a decision she makes alone.

Frame says the reason she is having discussions about adding the potential amendment are centered around her concerns about complex family trauma — situations involving underage victims and offenders inside the same family — which was the situation in her own sexual abuse as a child.

“I’ve heard questions, ‘what about the victims,’ I actually am thinking about the victims,” Frame said.

What she means is, could eliminating the statute of limitations actually lead to fewer victims reporting in those family scenarios?

“When abuse is happening within a family it often goes unreported because it’s very disruptive to a family. People like to sweep this kind of thing under the rug because it’s very embarrassing,” Frame explained. “I started asking the questions, does raising the statute of limitations to a lifetime — does this, for instance, maybe let families off the hook? Do they say, ‘well this happened, she can always report it later.'”

“It’s not that this is creating a problem, I think it’s exacerbating a problem that already exists. I think a lot of times victims are not getting the help they need, they’re not getting the counseling they’re needing, perpetrators are often not held accountable because again, it’s sort of embarrassing for the family, which means they’re not getting the help they need to interrupt that behavior,” Frame said, pointing out that juvenile offenders who are held accountable when they are still children have a much lower rate of repeating the behavior.

Still, some sexual assault survivors and advocates see this as almost a betrayal by someone who is herself a sexual assault survivor.

To that Frame said, “Prosecution is not necessarily justice that every victim is seeking, and for some victims acknowledgement, apology — that is justice — being able to move on with their lives,” she explained. “I understand that feeling for folks, that for them prosecution is the only method to justice. For other victims that’s not it, and for some victims — when the statute of limitations is there forever — it means that their perpetrator will probably never acknowledge what they did, will never apologize, will never bring that victim closure.”

For Frame, the bottom line is forcing a conversation to be had about the issues she is raising, something she says should have happened months ago when she raised the same issues last session.

“When I read this piece of legislation, it just feels like it was written through the lens of adult perpetrators with child victims,” Frame said. “It feels like it’s been written completely ignorant of a range of situations.”

She also pointed out a lot of this is process and that she expects this policy to pass this session, whether she gets the change she may be seeking now or that her concerns get addressed is separate legislation down the line.

As for Rep. Griffey, who has fought for so many years for the policy change because of his own wife and daughter’s personal experiences, he doesn’t want to stand in the way of whatever version of his bill gets passed this session.

Griffey has vowed to bring back a proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations altogether in the future, but says he will likely take a break and not propose it next session because it is so difficult for the survivors who come and share their personal stories every year.

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