During a virtual press conference on Wednesday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a landmark Florida law benefiting childhood sex abuse victims, participants mentioned Colorado’s failure to pass a similar measure in the 2020 session.
“It’s time to do the right thing to fight crime and to help survivors,” said Joelle Casteix, a sex abuse survivor who successfully sued the Catholic Church in California. “There’s a very similar battle going on in Colorado right now. A bill was recently pulled because it didn’t have that retroactivity.”
Her comments alluded to House Bill 1296, which would have allowed future survivors of childhood sex abuse and other forms of sexual misconduct unlimited time to sue their abusers and the institutions that harbored them. One of the sponsors asked a Senate committee at the last minute to kill the bill because she wanted to add a retroactive provision next year that would benefit past victims.
The Florida legislature in 2010 eliminated the civil and criminal statute of limitations for sexual battery of children under age 16. Dave Aaronberg, now the state attorney for Palm Beach County, was a Democratic senator who sponsored the proposal.
“When you look back and you think, ‘Well, it was unanimous. It was a fait accompli. It was easy to pass because we’re on the right side of justice, of fairness, of decency,’ it was not automatic by any means,” he said.
Patti Robinson was one of the advocates for the 2010 law. A karate instructor molested her son, Jeff, when the boy was 11 years old. She said the effects lingered throughout his shortened life. He went to college and tried to die by suicide three times.
“He’d call me from Tallahassee with a gun to his head and I used to have to try to talk him down in the middle of the night,” she said. He ultimately succeeded at age 31.
Michael Dolce, an attorney and survivor who worked with Robinson on the statute of limitations elimination, said that “Florida is safer for children than it was 10 years ago,” and he hoped other states would follow suit. Dolce said that in his experience, he has brought at least half a dozen cases in recent years that were only possible because of the extended window to sue. Aaronberg added that his special victims unit uses the law “all the time,” and those prosecutors wish the same unlimited timing were available to adult survivors.
In Colorado, childhood sex abuse victims generally have until six years after they turn 18 to sue a perpetrator and two years to sue an institution. Marci A. Hamilton, founder and CEO of the advocacy group CHILD USA, said that 12 states have eliminated the civil statute of limitations. She believed that tying federal child welfare aid to changes in state laws would create an incentive for more permissive windows.
“Colorado was going to do a complete elimination going forward,” she said. “Nothing is happening in Colorado this year because of the opposition. So the federal government could incentive Colorado to do a better job this year.”
While HB1296 did not have any announced opposition this year other than the Catholic Church, the bill also did not contain a controversial provision that dragged down a similar attempt in 2006: a “lookback window” that would have enabled survivors of past abuse to sue regardless of when their statute of limitations expired.
Hamilton clarified that federal funding “would promote passage of something sooner rather than later. The history of SOL reform is incremental, so passage in one year does not foreclose arguments for future changes.”
A desire not to pursue incremental reform, however, was the reason Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, successfully asked a Senate committee to kill the bill of which she was a sponsor. At the time, Gonzales said there were concerns about an inability to pass a standalone lookback window if the forward-looking legislation were enacted into law. She vowed to revise the bill and reintroduce it next year.
One of the bill’s House sponsors, Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, disagreed with the strategy and indicated she would bring forth a proposal very similar to HB1296 in 2021. Michaelson Jenet on Wednesday said she had not previously heard the argument for tying federal funding to state law changes, but that a group of advocates would be meeting soon to work on next year’s bill.
Dolce, the attorney, explained that Florida's "constitutional strictures" were the reason why a retroactive provision had not passed in his state. The general feeling among the group that worked on HB1296 was that Colorado's constitution was similarly prohibitive.