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Delaware’s Child Victim’s Act: A Resounding Success but More Still Needs to be Done

After decades of sweeping the problem under the rug, Americans are now facing the grim reality of the immense cost of childhood sexual abuse. As hard as it is to believe, the most reliable studies show that one out of every four girls and one out of six boys are sexually abused before they reach age 18.

This abuse not only scars the soul but leads to lifelong problems with addiction, personal relationships, and far too often crime.

Seven years ago, Delaware became a model for the rest of the United States when it adopted the Child Victim’s Act.

This law abolished the harsh two year deadline to file a childhood sex abuse case. The lawsuits which were then filed show that sex offenders come from all walks of life: a state court judge, a famous high school football coach, a disc jockey, an OB/GYN doctor, a teacher’s aide, a public school principal, a Boy Scout leader, and dozens of revered Catholic priests.

The silent victims were people we come in contact with every day – policemen, lawyers, insurance agents, sales clerks, bus drivers, plumbers, and the little boy down the street.

Far too often, people forget that the civil tort system can be a powerful means of protecting society’s interest. Often it is very difficult, if not impossible for the criminal justice system to punish a sex offender.

Not only does the prosecution have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but there are numerous other obstacles that must be overcome before there is a conviction. With the Child Victim’s Act, Delaware has added a powerful tool to deter and punish sex offenders.

It is noteworthy that very few of the sex abusers who were successfully sued under the Act were ever punished, much less prosecuted under our criminal system.

While Delaware’s Child Victim’s Act was a major step forward, more needs to be done. It is my hope that in the next legislative session that the General Assembly will consider the following reforms:

  • Remove the current special protection Delaware public schools have that allows them to negligently hire, retain and harbor sexual offenders.At present a private school, whether secular or parochial, can be held liable for its negligence, while the public school down the street gets off. This double standard must end. Our children in public schools deserve the same protection as a private school student.
  • Across America in the federal courts, thanks to then-Senator Joe Biden’s signature legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, evidence can be introduced about the defendant’s prior sexual misconduct whereas in a Delaware state court this evidence often cannot be used.
  • John Doe Filing. In today’s computer age, anyone can go on the public docket and learn the identity and other personal information about these scarred victims, even if they are minors. Right now it is within the complete discretion of the Judge to prevent a sexual abuse victim from filing a John Doe case.

Delaware should allow victims to freely file as John or Jane Doe, something that would not only encourage people coming forward but would also minimize further injury and embarrassment to those already scarred young children.

Finally, while the money obtained in a civil lawsuit is important, especially to get much needed medical care and to compensate a victim for a lifetime of loss, often the most important thing is that the victim is finally able to confront his abuser. For the first time in his life, it is the victim who has the power over the abuser and not the other way around.