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Lori Gramlich of Old Orchard Beach represents District 13 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a longtime social worker and public health advocate.
If you are not a survivor of child sexual abuse yourself, it is likely that someone in your life is. It is estimated that about 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point during childhood, and 91 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone within the child’s family or a family friend.
Experiencing this abuse as a child can have serious short- and long-term consequences on your physical, mental and behavioral health and increases the risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, suicide and incarceration. According to a National Institute of Health study in 2009, 47 percent of inmates who are women reported childhood sexual victimization.
Despite how widespread this problem is, survivors often feel alone in their trauma. They feel shame, fear, guilt and uncertainty. Frequently, they do not report what happened to them because of concerns about being believed, being judged, housing and family stability or other potential repercussions.
Developmentally, children do not always have the emotional and cognitive skills to process such traumatic, adverse childhood experiences. Cognitive skills, including thinking, learning, understanding, problem-solving, reasoning and remembering, in addition to the feelings of guilt and shame, will often prevent a child from disclosing what happened to them. These feelings often persist well into adulthood, preventing many of us from openly confronting our past, resulting in 52 being the average age that survivors of child sexual abuse file claims.
I cannot, nor would I presume to, speak for every survivor. I can only speak for myself. It has taken me many years as an adult to process the atrocities that my siblings and I endured growing up. I knew that I could never change what happened to me, but I also knew that when I got to be a grown up, I would do my best to make things better for others.
This legislative session, I introduced a bill to remove the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes, giving all survivors the ability to pursue justice no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. On June 21, Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law. The measure will go into effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns this year.
When this new law goes into effect, we will take a monumental step in addressing child sexual abuse and telling survivors that they matter. Currently, survivors who experienced abuse prior to 1987 cannot take legal action against those who abused them and the schools, institutions and organizations that looked the other way or covered up the crime. But when my bill goes into effect this fall, survivors of all ages will be able to come forward, speak their truth and build their legal case to hold their perpetrators accountable.
If you, or someone you know, has experienced sexual assault or child sexual abuse, you can call the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s helpline at 1-800-871-7741. Their service is free, private and available 24/7.
Survivors need to know that they are not defined by their abuse, and that there are resources available to them. By removing the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes, the pursuit of justice is now one of those resources for many more survivors.