By Patrick Noaker, Attorney at Law
For many service members, the return from an overseas assignment can be bittersweet. Reunion with wives, husbands, children and other family members is sweet, but some of the emotional baggage brought back is bitter. This is even more the case for those who are the survivors of childhood sexual abuse. For many, the exposure to violence related to military service, magnifies and aggravates the pain he or she experiences related to the childhood sexual abuse. Both during and after military service, service members are often left with overwhelming emotional responses relating to multiple sources of trauma.
Unfortunately, childhood sexual abuse is very common in the U.S. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before age 18. Between 80 and 90% of victims are sexually abused by a family member or by a familiar trusted person, such as a member of the clergy. It is not surprising that these crimes almost always go unreported until the survivor is an adult, if at all. Nevertheless, the child victims continue to have to live with the psychological consequences of the abuse throughout his or her life.
Fortunately, help is available. According to the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in Charleston, South Carolina, psychotherapy, among other treatments, can be a very effective way to treat the symptoms associated with childhood sexual abuse. Similarly, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the same type of psychotherapy, among other treatments, is also recommended for PTSD related to military service.
One problem that service member survivors of childhood sexual abuse often face is how to afford the treatment that they need once they return from active duty. For the most part, the U.S. system for making an injured party whole is to use the civil justice system to force the perpetrating party, and others who may have assisted him or her, to help pay for the needed treatment as well as other pain and suffering damages.
It is here that there is an advantage available to a service member. Often, years have passed since the sexual abuse occurred and state time limits for filing civil lawsuits, called statutes of limitations, may have expired. There is one major exception to these time limits. Under the Service members Civil Relief Act, the period of a service member’s full-time active military service cannot be included in computing any of the statute of limitations period. (See www.soldiercsa.com.) For example, if the statute of limitations in a state provides that a victim of childhood sexual abuse has until he or she is 25 years of age to file a civil lawsuit for damages relating to the abuse. In the case where the survivor of the sexual abuse is 28 years old, but with 4 years of full-time active military service, the Service members Civil Relief Act would allow the 28 year old to file the lawsuit, where other non-service members would not be allowed to file a lawsuit. This is because the 4 year full-time active military service period could not be used in the calculation of the expiration of the statute of limitations period.
The Service member’s Civil Relief Act has recently been used to help a service member get the help he needed. In St. Paul, Minnesota, our law firm handled a case where a 20-year Naval officer was sexually abused as a child by a Roman Catholic priest (See Jeff Strickler, “9 Minnesota clergy abuse cases being settled for $1.7 million,” Star Tribune, February 6, 2009; Emily Gurnon, “Nine men to share $1.7 million from Catholic order that admits sex abuse,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 6, 2009). In this case, the Catholic religious order of The Crosiers Fathers and Brothers attempted to get the abuse lawsuit dismissed claiming the statute of limitations had expired on the Naval officer’s claims. Relying on the Service member’s Civil Relief Act, the Court refused to dismiss the claims because the survivor/Naval officer had been a full-time active service member for 20 years and thus, the statute of limitations did not begin to run until he left full-time military service. Similar applications of the Service member’s Civil Relief Act to sexual abuse lawsuits involving other Catholic clergy is occurring across the country to help service members get the help that they need.
Even though the pain associated with childhood sexual abuse can be overwhelming, there is help available. The first step is to consult with an attorney who practices in the area of sexual abuse. This consultation (as well as all communications thereafter) is by law completely CONFIDENTIAL. By hiring a qualified attorney in the area of sexual abuse, a service member survivor may be able to pursue justice in the civil court system by using the Service member’s Civil Relief Act. In most states, a survivor can also keep his or her identity confidential during the lawsuit because the action involves criminal acts when the survivor was a child. Sometimes, a lawsuit is not even required to pursue a claim for sexual abuse. When money damages are collected from a claim or a lawsuit, that money can be used for the treatment that the service member survivor needs and deserves in order to recover from the traumas of his or her life.
Patrick Noaker is an attorney with the law firm of Jeff Anderson and Associates which has represented courageous survivors of childhood sexual abuse nationwide for 25 years. www.andersonadvocates.com.
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