Child sexual assault survivors could sue abusers any time after assault under Colorado bill

Legislation does not include ‘look-back window’ in cases where statute of limitations already expired

Coram Gardner
State Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, listens as state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, speaks about Senate Bill 21-73 on March 1, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

After an attempt last year to remove the statute of limitations in child sexual assault cases came to an abrupt halt, Colorado legislators are confident they can pass a similar bill in 2021.

Senate Bill 21-73 passed the Senate on second reading March 1. It would allow people who survived sexual assault or other sexual crimes as children to bring a lawsuit against their abusers at any time after the crimes occurred. Survivors of child sexual misconduct currently have just six years to bring a lawsuit after they turn 18.

SB-73 also allows parents to bring lawsuits on behalf of their children, including against organizations or entities such as school districts or churches that turned a blind eye to abuse.

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The bill doesn’t provide a “look-back window” — a point of contention for lawmakers the last time they tried to pass such legislation. A look-back window would have allowed people for whom the six-year statute of limitations had already expired to be granted a limited period of time in which they’d be able to sue their abusers.

During the legislative session that ended in June 2020, the Senate sponsor of House Bill 20-1096, Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, asked a committee to postpone the bill indefinitely because it didn’t include a look-back window. But the bill’s House sponsors had determined the look-back window wouldn’t fly under Colorado’s Constitution, according to reporting by The Colorado Sun. The move shocked Gonzales’ colleagues and the survivor advocacy organizations that had backed the bill.

This year, a similar version of the legislation doesn’t count Gonzales as a sponsor. State Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, is the prime sponsor in the Senate. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, along with Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, and Matt Soper, R-Delta, sponsored the bill in 2020 and are doing so again in 2021.

The bill won unanimous approval from lawmakers on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee after a Feb. 24 hearing where several witnesses testified about their personal experiences enduring sexual assault as children.

The bill doesn’t provide a “look-back window” which would have allowed people for whom the six-year statute of limitations had already expired to be granted a limited period of time in which they’d be able to sue their abusers.

Jeb Barrett, who works with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, testified that he was abused by an uncle and by a priest in his childhood. But it took him a long time to come to terms with what happened.

“I disassociated,” said Barrett, 81. “I buried memories and outright betrayal from these betrayals for decades.”

Barrett said that while he would never be able to bring justice to his abusers, because the statute of limitations had expired before he was ready to publicly talk about the assaults he endured, “future victims may gain access to our civil justice system” through SB-73.

The Health and Human Services Committee Feb. 24 vote moved the bill to the full Senate for consideration. But before the Senate voted March 1 to approve SB-73 on second reading, one lawmaker questioned whether that committee was the best fit to ask the right legal questions of the bill sponsors and lawyers who testified.

“It seems to me that the policy questions here are best dealt with in the Judiciary Committee,” state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, said on the House floor. “After all, the bill title is ‘Changing the statute of limitations applicable to civil actions,’ etc.”

Sen. Rhonda Fields
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

Gardner, a lawyer by profession, asked senators to send the bill back to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. While a few Republicans spoke in support of that motion, the request drew rebukes from lawmakers of both parties — including state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee.

“To try to imply that the Health and Human Services Committee did not give a fair and just committee hearing … is false,” Fields said. “I have confidence in my committee that we did the right thing.”

Coram said the bill was too important to delay.

“Is a 6-year-old child who is molested — statute of limitations is six years — is that child less molested after six years? No, they are not,” Coram said. “They carry a burden through their whole life, and frankly, many times, far too often that life is cut short by suicide. The burden is too heavy.”

After the motion failed, Gardner brought several amendments that would have scaled back components of the bill — saying he didn’t mean to malign Fields’ committee but would rather have brought his amendments with the five-member Judiciary Committee instead of the full Senate. One amendment would have lengthened the statute of limitations instead of removing it entirely.

Another would have kept a statute of limitations in place for organizations that were “third parties” in sexual assault lawsuits.

In the end, those amendments failed to get the votes to pass, and the Senate approved SB-73 unamended on second reading.

The chamber is scheduled to hold a final vote on the bill March 2, before it moves to the House for consideration.

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