Articles Posted in Legislature

In a ruling hailed by survivors of child sexual abuse, the state’s highest court has upheld a 2014 law that gave victims an additional 32 years to file civil lawsuits against alleged perpetrators, according to the Boston Globe.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous decision also upheld the part of the law that applies the extension to cases that pre-dated the measure’s passage last year.

“It’s just a great, great day for so many survivors,” said Rosanne Sliney, 52, of Burlington, the plaintiff at the center of the ruling.

Massachusetts legislators have passed a bill to extend by 32 years the statute of limitations for filing civil suits against perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors.

The new law gives child victims of sexual abuse until age 53 to sue their alleged abusers.

The law also allows lawsuits against abuser’s supervisors and the institution that they worked or volunteered for from the point the bill is signed and going forward, but not retroactively. Many lawyers who represent abuse victims expressed disappointment it the law will not allow people older than 21 to retroactively sue those who supervised their alleged abusers or the institutions that employed them.

After years of trying to strike a compromise, the House voted unanimously on Wednesday to extend the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual assault to bring civil claims against their abusers.

The bill (H 4126) would allow victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits up until the time they turn 53 years old, an extra 35 years on top of what is currently allowed.

Rep. John Lawn, a Watertown Democrat who worked with victims, advocates and groups like the Catholic Church to reach the compromise, said the bill struck a balance between allowing victims the time to come to terms with their abuse while also respecting the rights of institutions that might become involved in lawsuits stemming from decades-old incidents.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has proposed a plan to create a separate Child Protection Division within the Department of Children and Families (DCF). This new division would be empowered to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect with a sole focus on the safety of the child or children involved.

Coakley, who as former Chief of the Child Abuse Unit in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and as Attorney General, fought for legislation that increased penalties for predators who abuse children.

“As Governor, I will be committed to implementing the crucial changes needed to help ensure that no child is the victim of preventable sexual, physical, or serious emotional abuse,” said Coakley.

The Boston Globe reports that the state’s highest court says a state child pornography law does ban an obscene video chat that a 34-year-old man had with a 10-year-old boy in cyberspace.

Jeffery Bundy was convicted of violating the state law that bars people from posing or exhibiting a child in a state of sexual conduct, specifically under the provision of the law that bans using children in “live performances.” He had encouraged the boy to mutually masturbate with him over the Web.

His defense argued, among other things, that there was no “performance” because the act did not take place “before one or more persons.”

The Patriot Ledger reports that a bill to keep 17-year-old offenders out of adult courtrooms and jails in Massachusetts aims to reduce sexual assault in prisons and bring the state into compliance with federal law.

The bill, which could come to a vote in the State House, would move 17-year-olds into juvenile jurisdiction and abolish the practice of charging them as adults in nearly all cases.

State Rep. James Cantwell, D-Marshfield, is optimistic about its chances for passage.

Governor Deval Patrick on Jan. 3 signed S. 2402, “An Act Relative To Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault and Stalking.” The legislation will provide housing rights and protections for victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking.

“We must do all we can to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence,” said Governor Patrick. “I thank the Legislature and the many caring advocates for giving us additional tools to do so.”

“After facing the emotional and physical trauma of abuse or assault, victims of sexual and domestic violence often struggle with ongoing concern for personal safety, housing instability or potential homelessness if they need to leave their residence,” said Lieutenant Governor Murray, who chairs both the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence and the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness. “By partnering with the legislature and community based advocates, we are helping to improve the safety of victims in their own home and providing opportunities to improve their safety without further financial penalties.”

In addition to the challenges of finding safety and maintaining stable housing, victims of sexual and domestic violence often encounter financial and legal barriers if they need to leave their home, even when staying in their home is unsafe. Many victims also face discrimination from prospective landlords when or if a past history of abuse is known. The legislation signed by the Governor provides victims of these crimes with rights and protections while also protecting the rights of property owners.

“We thank the legislature and the Governor for passage of this bill,” said Mary Lauby, Executive Director of Jane Doe Inc. “Inadequate and unsafe housing options contribute to the economic instability that some victims face. This law removes obstacles as it creates new options for rape victims and victims of domestic violence who may need and want such protection.”

Among key provisions, S. 2402:

Establishes a defense to eviction if a landlord attempts to evict a tenant because he/she was the victim of one of these crimes;
Creates a provision for victims of these crimes, with appropriate documentation, to vacate their lease or rental agreements without financial penalty;
Provides a provision that allows for victims to have their locks changed As chair of both the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence and the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, Lieutenant Governor Murray convened a joint working group in 2012 to identify more efficient and compassionate ways to support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in various housing systems.
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The Massachusetts Legislature is contemplating new legislation, The Protection from Sexual Predators Act of 2011, House Bill No. 469 (amended as House Bill 4326). The Bill is designed to elongate the statute of limitations significantly, to allow sex abuse victims until age 43 to bring civil claims against their abusers. The current statute is 3 years from the time of the offense, or the age of 21 for those abused as minors (three years from the age of 18).

Research has shown that many victims do not disclose that they were abused until more than 30 years after the abuse, thereby prohibiting victims from seeking civil justice since their claims are time-barred.

In addition, the proposed bill would open a window in which victims whose claims were previously barred by the statute of limitations would have a short period of time (likely one year) to bring those claims forward in Court. Other states, including California, have opened similar windows in recent years.

The Boston Globe reports today that Stephen Embry has filed a sexual abuse lawsuit against Harvard University, contending he was repeatedly molested by a swimming coach at the campus from 1969 to 1972. The alleged abuse began when Embry, now 55, was barely 12.

Embry, along with his lawyer, Carmen Durso, also asserts that Harvard misled him about the statute of limitations on abuse claims, and failed to disclose a previous claim brought in 1996 against the university and the swimming coach, Benn Merritt.

The complaint against Harvard, filed by the brother of one of Embry’s closest boyhood friends, was dismissed. The suit against Merritt was resolved by settlement, court records show. A few months after the lawsuit was filed, Merritt killed himself in his Billerica home.

The Globe reports today that Embry first contacted a university lawyer shortly after recalling the abuse, and contends that Harvard did not disclose the prior abuse claim against Merritt to deter him from taking legal action.

“They told me they didn’t know anything about this, that it happened too long ago,” he said to the Globe. “They lied to me.”

Citing a 2010 letter to Embry from a university lawyer, Durso told the Globe that the university committed fraud by misrepresenting the state’s statute of limitation law.

“They had no legal duty to provide him with information” about the previous case, he said. “But they couldn’t mislead him, and that’s what they did.”

Under Massachusetts law, victims of sexual abuse typically must file a civil claim within three years after they were last abused, or three years after turning 18. Under the “discovery rule,” victims can also file a civil claim within three years of when they realized they had been abused, although defendants will often challenge this on statute of limitations grounds.

According to the Boston Globe, in 2010, Ellen Fels Berkman, a university attorney, told Embry that she had “been unable to find anyone who would support your suggestion that Harvard is legally responsible.”

“The time has long since passed for bringing a legal claim against the university,” she added.

That assertion, Durso says, was fraudulent, and discouraged Embry from pursing legal action.

In a statement issued Wednesday, university officials said “there was nothing to prevent” Embry from taking legal action, and that there was no evidence Harvard was aware of any abuse at the time.

Embry’s case and others like it that I am looking into underscore the need to relax the state’s statute of limitation laws. Victims may not realize they have been abused until decades later.

“The laws have simply not kept up with the reality of the trauma,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children.
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