Victims of sexual assault or exploitation would get expanded opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable in court under a pair of bills making their way through the Vermont legislature.
H. 511 would extend or remove the statute of limitations on multiple sex crimes and other serious offenses, giving prosecutors more time to bring charges.
The other bill, H. 330, concerns civil claims against institutions alleged to have failed to adequately protect children. Current law allows cases to be brought within six years of the underlying allegations or of their disclosure by victims. The proposal would allow victims to sue regardless of how many years have passed.
The Senate is expected to vote on that bill this week or next. It passed the House on a voice vote in March.
“This is really about giving victims justice,” said House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown).
Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Scott, said her boss "supports the goals of these bills" but stopped short of endorsing them "as they both still have some steps to go through in the legislative process."
Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), the lead sponsor of the bill that addresses civil claims, said the legislation is important because of the way some people process childhood trauma.
“We heard testimony that it can be years before an individual comes forward and understands what has happened, the impact of it, and is able to then approach the authorities and explain what has happened,” he said.
LaLonde’s bill doesn’t address lawsuits against the perpetrators of sex crimes, but is instead designed to hold institutions accountable for failing to protect kids. The Senate Judiciary committee unanimously approved the bill Wednesday morning after one key change, which would require victims bringing a case to prove gross negligence, instead of simple negligence, on the part of the institution.
“Take the Catholic Church as an example,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), referring to repeated instances of child sex abuse. “Clearly their behavior was gross negligence. But perhaps a McDonald's franchise owner whose store manager did something may or may not have been gross negligence, depending on what he knew or what [he] didn’t know.”
Separate legislation dealing with criminal statutes of limitations originated in the House Judiciary Committee and has already passed both chambers, but with key differences.
The House-passed version of H. 511 would eliminate the 40-year statute of limitations for sexual exploitation of a minor, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, and sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult. The bill would also eliminate statutes of limitations for first-degree aggravated domestic assault, manslaughter and false imprisonment.
The Senate scaled back the changes proposed by the House and passed a version of the bill that would remove only the statute of limitations for manslaughter.
Before either bill can be sent to the governor, the policy differences between the House and Senate versions must be settled in a conference committee made up of three members from both the Senate and the House.