• 61°

Legislature has chance to help those that can’t help themselves

In the midst of the cacophony over election reform, vaccination policy, sports betting, Trump’s grumps harrumphs and another unconscionable private school voucher scheme, a piece of much-needed legislation is quietly wending its way through the legislative maze this session and maybe will finally become law.  It is long overdue.

It is called the Child Victim Protection Act, and it is intended to get our state’s child sexual abuse laws strengthened and in line with other states. The driving force behind the legislation is Atlanta attorney Marlan Wilbanks, founder of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic (CEASE), located at the University of Georgia School of Law and dedicated to representing survivors of child sexual abuse.

ChildUSA, a national think tank for child protection, ranks Georgia as one of the worst states in the nation for survivors of child sexual abuse to try and get access to the civil justice system. Georgia is one of only 6 states that does not allow claims after the age of 30. 

Currently, the age for filing sexual abuse claims in the state is 23. That is lower than every other state in the southeast.

Under the current legislation which seems to be getting broad bipartisan support, there would be a one-year open period for anyone of any age to bring charges of sexual abuse. After that, the law would be limited to cases occurring after 2015 and 52 years of age.

What is magical about the age of 52? Studies show that on average a victim of child abuse will not disclose the experience until that age.  One clinical study found that 64% of participant/survivors experienced what they term “dissociative amnesia” and 28% suffered “severe memory deficits.” Those are scientific big words for being so traumatized by the experience as a child that it takes years to come to terms with what happened and to talk about it.

Wilbanks says that over time it is likely that 1 out of 5 girls will be abused and 1 out of 12 boys.  This gets up-close-and-personal with me. I have two great-grandsons and three great-granddaughters, all between the ages of 12 and 2, that I love passionately and who think life looks pretty awesome from where they sit. I can’t fathom them suffering a life-altering trauma as abused children.

My niece, Marlyn Darragh, a registered nurse in Gainesville, works with child victims of sexual abuse at the South Enota Child Advocacy Center in White County and with the Forsyth County facility as a sexual assault nurse examiner. I don’t know how she does it but I am proud of her for doing so.

What she, Wilbanks and others tell me is the pandemic has made child sexual abuse incidents worse, if that is possible. Children are cooped up with adults and no one with whom to share their incidences of abuse.

Caroline Wallis, long-time director of FAITH, a Child Advocacy & Sexual Assault Center serving Rabun County as well as Stephens and Habersham Counties, says there has been a 92% increase in requested services from victims of sexual assault during the past year.

Marlan Wilbanks has faced political headwinds in past efforts to get child sexual abuse legislation passed, mainly from the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church. Both have had more than their share of well-publicized sexual abuse situations but have opposed any legislation that would allow victims to sue them.

In 2019, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, now Wilton Cardinal Gregory in Washington, D.C., said such a bill would be “unfair to the church” and  “drastically damage (our) ability to carry out the mission of the Catholic Church.”  I suspect God found that downright hypocritical.  Now Pope Francis, who has likened child sexual abuse to the ancient practice of child sacrifice in pagan rites, has pretty much muzzled that kind of talk. As for the Boy Scouts, they have declared bankruptcy as they face some 300 lawsuits from men who say they were sexually abused as Scouts. They have wisely indicated they are not going to be a problem this time around. It also doesn’t hurt that First Lady Marty Kemp is a strong advocate in the fight against sex trafficking.

“Ms. Kemp’s efforts and ours fit like a glove,” Wilbanks says. “We both want to hold entities responsible for their predatory actions and make Georgia a model for protecting those that can’t protect themselves.” It will be interesting to see if the legislators agree. Why would they not?