Editorial: Passage of time shouldn’t aid child abusers
The time has come for New Hampshire to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children.
As it stands, the state can pursue charges only until the victim turns 40. We were reminded of the folly of this particular law last week, when Kenneth Day of Epsom was charged with 300 counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. One of his accusers said the assaults happened in Barnstead and Maine, but only the Maine charges will be pursued because the statute of limitations has expired in New Hampshire. Maine is one of at least 25 states that do not have a time limit on prosecuting sexual crimes against children.
Statutes of limitation exist, in part, to protect the integrity of investigations and ensure prosecutorial diligence. While this makes sense for some crimes, it ignores much of the research related to how children deal with sexual assault, especially when considering that most of the victims were abused by somebody they knew and at one time trusted.
According to the American Humane Association, a child “may be so traumatized by sexual abuse that years pass before he or she is able to understand or talk about what happened. In these cases, adult survivors of sexual abuse may come forward for the first time in their 40s or 50s and divulge the horror of their experiences.”
Many studies have tried to shed light on why some cases of child sexual abuse are not reported until decades later.
In 2006, two Harvard University psychologists published a study based on interviews with 27 people who had forgotten but later recovered memories of child sexual abuse. What Susan Clancy and Richard McNally discovered in the course of their research, according to the Harvard Gazette, was that only two of the 27 victims felt traumatized at the time the crime was committed. When asked how they forgot about the abuse, most said it was a conscious effort: They tried not to remember.
One of the victims said: “Well, it was clear to me that I could never tell my mother. And it was obvious my father wasn’t going to ask me any more about it. So how was I going to handle that? I just forgot about it.”
It’s tragic that some children feel their only recourse following a sexual assault is to suppress memories of the crime. The tragedy is compounded when New Hampshire tells a victim that justice is no longer available to him or her because too many years have passed since they were robbed of their childhood and, in many cases, their future.
Statutes of limitation are, by definition, arbitrary. And while that random designation may be acceptable for some crimes, it is unconscionable when it comes to the horrific abuse of a child.
The state must send a clear message to victims that when they are ready to talk, whether that be now or in 50 years, officials will be ready to listen and prepared to pursue justice. They are owed at least that much.