Trigger warning: sexual assault, sexual abuse, PTSD, suicide
Chanel Miller, the victim of the now-infamous sexual assault case at Stanford University in 2015, has decided to share her name. She was known as Emily Doe when she read her searing victim impact statement in court, and in newspapers she was called ‘unconscious intoxicated woman.’ This month her book, Know My Name, will be released. Writing her story has been a process of reclaiming her name and identity.
Lifting the Statute of Limitations on reporting. The Child Victims Act passed the New York State Senate in January 2019 and went into effect on August 14th of this year. The Act extends the Statute of Limitations permanently for child sexual abuse victims so that they can file a civil claim until age 55. The age limit had previously been 23. In addition, for one year only, New York state lifted its Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse cases, allowing former child sexual abuse victims to file civil charges against their perpetrators regardless of their current age or how long ago the sexual abuse occurred. After only one week, over 500 lawsuits had been filed under the Child Victims Act.
A little background on the Child Victims Act. Twenty-two states have passed a version of the Child Victims Act, starting with California in 2003. Long-time lobbying finally led to traction in New York after the midterm elections in 2018. One major organization that has been opposed to the passage of this law is the Catholic Church in New York, which spent $2.1 million lobbying against the Child Victim Act. Notably, the majority of victims of the Catholic Church sexual assault crimes are boys. Although we know less about the mental health impact of sexual assault for boys, we know that regardless of gender, victims are at increased risk for emotional and mental health concerns across the lifespan.
Sexual assault and mental health. Approximately 1 in 12 children is a victim of child sexual abuse in the United States. As with other types of trauma, sexual abuse, especially during childhood, has major implications for mental health. Children with exposure to sexual abuse are over 10 times more likely to consider suicide in adolescence and more likely to develop almost all major mental health disorders as adults, including increased risk not only for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also high blood pressure and sleep loss.
The mental health implications of reporting. It is common knowledge that survivors of sexual assault often choose not to report their perpetrators. Only 23% of sexual assaults are brought to the police. And children who have been sexually abused are no different. A study conducted by the Australian government found that it took child sexual abuse victims an average of 24 years to start speaking about their abuse. There are many reasons that survivors may choose not to share their story, even as an adult, including continued denial about the abuse, dissociation and lack of clear memory about the events, and shame. This is precisely why the new rules from the Child Victims Act are so important. If supported and respected, reporting can have significant mental health benefits, helping victims claim their voice and feel empowered. However, victims who report can also experience “secondary victimization” and re-trigger trauma. This needs to be addressed by the police and court system to ensure all victims are safe and supported when sharing their stories.
Joyful Heart is getting rape kits analyzed. There are currently tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting with local and state authorities across the United States. Testing these rape kits matters. Processing rape kits has led to the conviction of 64 attackers in New York just this year. Joyful Heart Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to improving society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. Their initiatives EndtheBacklog and The Accountability Project document in real time the extent of the problem and lobby policymakers to get behind this effort.
As individuals, we can support survivors of sexual assault in sharing their stories in the ways that they find healing and empowering. As a society, we need to support policy initiatives that advance justice. The Child Victims Act is a step in the right direction, but we have a steep climb ahead, including changing how our legal system and our communities handle matters of sexual assault to support the mental health of all survivors.