The Colorado House of Representatives voted 57-6 on Monday to remove the legal deadline for survivors of childhood sex abuse and other types of sexual misconduct to hold their perpetrators accountable. Senate Bill 73 would bring Colorado into alignment with a dozen other states in recognizing a narrow window for filing civil lawsuits does not always align with the reality of sexual assault survivors, who often disclose their abuse years or decades after the fact.
Victim advocates, whose first major push to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child victims in 2006 failed following an oppositional campaign from the Catholic Church, showed up in force this year to encourage a change in policy.
"The things we heard about, the things that made grown witnesses cry and scream years and decades after they happened, did not happen to us," said Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, on Friday. Weissman chairs the Judiciary Committee where survivors testified last week about their own rapes and molestations. "We get to sit in here in these chairs and be part of providing a solution, finally saying, no, we’re not gonna slam the doors to the courthouse of justice in some arbitrary way to people who have suffered these hideous things.”
SB73 would eliminate the six year window which generally applies for a victim to sue their perpetrator after turning 18, as well as eliminate the two-year window that typically governs claims against a third party, such as an employer or youth organization.
The bill cleared the House after a majority of members defeated a move from Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, to pause the bill for an amendment that would address his main concern: ensuring estates, heirs or family members would not face civil lawsuits for the actions of an alleged perpetrator who is deceased.
"A dead person cannot defend themselves," said Bockenfeld during second reading debate on Friday. "And it’s not fair that your survivors and spouses and children have to defend something that may or may not be true before they’re even aware that an issue could have existed.”
Weissman explained that creditors for deceased persons, which would include victims with civil claims, have one year to file their claim following the person's death. SB73, he said, would leave that limit untouched.
The bill's sponsors were highly critical of Bockenfeld's request for a modification. Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, spoke bluntly about her own sexual assaults, first at age seven and then at age 14.
“[After] my rape, I came home and had a breakdown, right there on the floor. I can still visualize myself in a fetal position behind the couch," she said. "And I thought my life was over. An Orthodox Jewish woman — nobody’s gonna marry me now. I was done. I was defiled. I was ruined."
Michaelson Jenet, who said she first told her mother at age 38, added: "That sticks with you your whole life. It doesn’t go away. Here, with this legislation, we say, 'I stand with you. And I trust you, and I believe in you, and I will try our best to protect you and make you whole.'"
Michaelson Jenet and Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, brought forth a virtually identical bill last year that passed the House with only one dissenting vote. After hearing multiple Republican members speak in support of Bockenfeld's motion, Soper questioned why, only now, did some people have a problem.
"Either some members are admitting they didn't read the bill last year, or they are admitting they want to protect Jeffrey Epstein this year," he said. "You can't have it both ways." Epstein, a financier whom authorities charged with sex trafficking of a minor, died by suicide in jail in 2019.
Bockenfeld responded that he resented Soper's characterization. A bipartisan vote of 14-49 subsequently defeated Bockenfeld's motion. On final passage of the bill, six Republicans voted no, and two Democrats were excused from voting.
Although SB73 would only benefit future victims and current survivors whose statute of limitations has not yet expired, a related measure, Senate Bill 88, would allow past victims to sue perpetrators and institutions under certain circumstances. That bill is pending a Senate vote.
Advocates for the proposal have cited multiple justifications for eliminating the statute of limitations for sexual misconduct: holding institutions accountable for failing to protect children, exposing predators who may still be in a position to cause harm, and acknowledging that an arbitrary time limit precludes survivors from accessing the court system if they wait until later in life to disclose their victimization.
According to ChildUSA, the average age of disclosure for children who are abused is 52. Plaintiffs would still be required under an unlimited timeline to prove their claim in court, even for incidents decades in the past.
SB73 will return to the Senate due to amendments from the House Judiciary Committee that clarified the removal of legal deadlines applies only to sexual assault, child sex abuse and other traumatic forms of misconduct. The change prompted Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, who was the lone no vote last year, to support the bill this year.
"I think this puts us in line with some of the states that have moved forward on these kinds of measures," she said.