TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After hearing the harrowing details of a high-school gang rape, a House panel on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that would eliminate the time limit for child sex-abuse victims to initiate a criminal case against their abuser.
Katrina Duesterhaus urged the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee to pass the proposal (HB 199), which would remove the statute of limitations in sexual battery cases when the victim is younger than 18 years old at the time of the crime.
“Nothing says you’re willing to believe survivors more than amending laws like the statute of limitations, which sets an arbitrary deadline on survivors of sexual assault,” Duesterhaus told the panel, after sharing a horrifying tale of how five men raped her when she was 17.
Duesterhaus, 34, said she was unable to seek justice from the courts because she came forward too late.
“I felt ashamed,” she added. “That is why it took me years to fully acknowledge, even to myself, that I was a survivor of sexual assault.”
Under current law, victims of sexual battery aged 16 or older who do not report the crime within 72 hours have eight years to file criminal charges against their abusers.
The state law is comprised of a patchwork of deadlines in which charges can be filed, depending on the age of the child when the crime was committed, the severity of the assault, and the victim's age when he or she reported the alleged assault to authorities.
Rep. Scott Plakon, the bill sponsor, told the House panel the state’s hodgepodge of regulations make it “very confusing” to determine when a child victim of sexual abuse can pursue criminal charges.
“This bill makes it that if you decide to commit evil like this upon our children, that you better be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life,” Plakon, R-Longwood, said Wednesday. “That in itself, I think, is important.”
Democratic state Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, and seven other House Democrats are co-sponsoring the measure.
After the committee advanced the proposal, Plakon and state Rep. Jennifer Webb, D- Gulfport, met with Duesterhaus outside of the meeting room and thanked her for what Plakon described as "one of the most compelling testimonies" he has heard during his time in the Legislature.
Webb, a co-sponsor of the measure, hugged Duesterhaus and advised her not to interpret the committee's silence as indifference, but as a sign that her testimony was "compelling."
"It was encouraging to be believed," Duesterhaus later said in an interview.
The Florida legislative effort comes after 23 states last year approved new laws that eased or eliminated the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse claims against alleged abusers or the institutions --- such as schools or churches --- with which they were affiliated, according to the advocacy group Child USA.
Plakon said the impetus to change Florida's current law arose from the Orlando-based case of Donna Hedrick, who was raped by a high-school music teacher when she was 15 years old.
“I did not file a report with the sheriff’s department,” Hedrick wrote in a Jan. 15 statement submitted to the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. “I knew that no one would believe me and that as many abusers made me believe, it was my fault anyway.”
When she was 40 years old, Hedrick tried to file a complaint with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, but was told the statute of limitations had expired, she wrote in the statement.
Since then, Hedrick started an online petition to remove the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse cases. After receiving roughly 25,000 signatures, Hedrick asked Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, to sponsor a measure to do away with the time limit.
Stewart’s bill (SB 170), which is identical to the House measure, has been approved by one committee and faces two more committee stops. Plakon’s proposal also has two more committee stops before heading to the House floor for a full vote.
Both bills would apply to offenses committed on or after July 1, when the bill would take effect.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.