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Statute of Limitations Can Thwart Child Sex Abuse Victims' Search For Justice: Lawyer

Exterior of the WestCoast Center for Human Development at 403 N. Washington
Sarasota police say former church leader Henry Porter preyed on boys aged 10-14 inside the Westcoast Center For Human Development. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

A decades-old sex abuse investigation into a retired Sarasota pastor is raising questions about Florida's statute of limitations law and how it affects a victim's search for justice.

When police arrested Henry Porter earlier this month, they said they knew about his alleged victims for years. But the statute of limitations prevented them from making an arrest.

WUSF's Kerry Sheridan spoke with Jennifer Freeman, a lawyer who specializes in child sex abuse and child pornography cases. She says it often takes decades for victims to come forward.

A: Whether the victims themselves feel silenced, whether they are actually scared, they've been threatened or intimidated, whether the perpetrators are protecting themselves or the institutions are protecting them -- there are many reasons why people don't come forward. But the research says that the average age of a person to come forward is 52. Certainly not anywhere near childhood and nowhere near where many of the statutes of limitations are.

Q: What is the statute of limitations for a child sex abuse case in Florida?

head shot of Jennifer Freeman, lawyer
Lawyer Jennifer Freeman represents child sex abuse victims and is a member of the New York, Texas, and Florida bars. Credit: Marsh Law Firm

A: In 2010, the state eliminated the civil statute of limitations for sexual battery offenses, where the victim is under 16. So 15 and under there's probably no statute of limitations. But for someone who's 16 and over, there is a statute limitations for abuse, which goes runs till age 25. So if you're 26 or over, you probably don't have a claim.

Q: Since it is so difficult for people to come forward, why do statutes of limitations exist in the first place?

A: I don't think that they necessarily should exist. But the theory is that people's memories fade, witnesses die. People want to make sure that claims are valid and are not fraudulent or made up. So there is a theory that people should come forward within a certain reasonable period of time. I don't think that applies for child sex abuse, because there are so many other factors which have limited these claims from coming forward.

Q: Some states are making changes to their laws? What are they doing to pave the way for some meaningful change in this area?

A: Well, there's been a lot of change in this area, as especially last year was a banner year for the reform of statutes of limitations and child sex abuse. There were 16 states plus the District of Columbia that passed what's called window legislation. And I believe there are 23 states plus D.C. that passed some kind of statute of limitations reform.

Q: What has Florida done? And what do you think Florida could do better?

Mug shot of Henry Lee Porter
Sarasota Police believe there are additional victims of Henry Porter. Anyone with information on this case is asked to call Civilian Investigator Jeff Birdwell at 941-263-6028 or leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers by calling 941-366-TIPS

A: I mentioned this concept of window legislation which is really reviving claims that have already been past the statute of limitations, which are already lapsed. Florida has put into play some bills to revive past claims but they have not pursued them and it has not passed. So this is something we very much hope the Florida legislature will look at very seriously and hopefully enact.

Q: And tell me about the situation in New York. I understand there's been a major change and some victims who were abused there have a limited amount of time to take action.

image of WestCoast Center for Human development Church in Sarasota
Sarasota police began investigating Henry Porter, a longtime pastor at the Westcoast Center for Human Development, in 1990 for alleged child sex abuse. He was arrested January 2, 2020 and has been charged with two felony counts. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

A: Yes, there has been a very large and important seismic change in New York statutes. The Child Victims Act passed last year, and it gave victims of child sex abuse in New York, one year and one year only -- that year started August 14, 2019. And will end August 13,  2020. So there's about seven months left for someone who has a child sex abuse claim, an old one, meaning someone over 23 years old, to come forward and bring their claims.

Q: When you talk about bringing a case to trial, does there need to be evidence in addition to testimony?

A: You certainly need evidence, but the evidence can be as simple as the testimony from the victim, that alone can be sufficient.

Q: And for people who are not directly involved in the abuse, but who may hear or see something that looks off, what can they do?

A: They can come forward also. They can talk to the victim and try to understand what happened. The biggest thing we say to people is believe them. When a victim comes to you and tells you what happened, believe them. People ask me all the time, or you know, aren't there people lying about this? Defrauding you and giving you false claims? We just don't find that's true.