A new law in Maryland that lifts the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits in child sexual abuse cases went into effect Sunday. In response, lawsuits representing more than 400 plaintiffs are being filed against the state over alleged child sex crimes that took place over decades in the state's juvenile justice system, an opportunity one plaintiff says felt empowering.
In most states, survivors have only until a few years after their 18th birthday to file a lawsuit. However, according to a 2020 study, it takes survivors until they're, on average, 52 years old to report cases of child abuse. Data from the Justice Department indicates that 86% of such cases are never reported.
Maryland is now the 10th state to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for all claims of child sexual abuse, allowing survivors to sue for damages at any time. This year, 37 other states have introduced bills that would reexamine or extend their civil statutes of limitations.
Claudia McLain was 13 years old when a judge decided she should be sent to the Charles H. Hickey school, a state-owned juvenile detention center in Baltimore, as punishment for stealing bikes and other minor offenses.
What should have been a time of reform led to a lifetime of trauma.
"I was in my room, it was night. The door opened, [and] your body clenched because you don't know what the f*** is going on. You['re] so shocked," McLain explained in an interview with CBS News. "[A] short time later [the assaults] happened again, then again, then again."
She says that after she had been assaulted, she was unable to sleep out of fear that it might happen again. She says she reported the abuse to her mother who complained to the authorities, but no action was taken.
McLain says after there was no intervention, she became depressed and even attempted suicide. "I'm just starting to come to terms with it about 10 years ago, to be honest."
Numerous reports dating back to the 1960s have documented sex abuse at these facilities, including this 51-page report by the Department of Justice in 2004 that found the Hickey School, where McClain was sent, had "major constitutional deficiencies," numerous additional instances of physical and sexual abuse, and a lack of appropriate practices for hiring, training and supervising employees.
McLain, now 49, compared the feeling of filing her lawsuit to taking a weight off your shoulders. "It's just like the bricks done dropped off," she said.
"We're finally seeing the law catch up to what trauma experts have been telling us for years," says McLain's attorney, Sharon Iskra. "We can't expect children to come forward in the same manner, the same short time period that an adult would be able to come forward, they simply can't even process what has happened to them and within sufficient time."
Iskra runs the Institutional Abuse and Neglect team for her law firm, Bailey-Glasser, and is filing the lawsuits, along with Walsh Law PLLC, Rhine Law Firm and DiCello Levitt, against the state of Maryland for child sex crimes committed throughout its juvenile justice system.
She says her office has received an increase in phone calls and applications since the bill was signed this past April.
"I have had people break down on the phone with me. Sometimes we break down together, and they say, finally, someone believes me," Iskra said.
In suing the state, Iskra says they are addressing the authority that put the perpetrators in charge, noting the abuse was well documented. She argues, "Shouldn't we hold the state responsible? And the people who read these reports, they could fix it. And I don't know why they didn't."
Before the passage of the new law in April, Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown wrote a letter saying, "If the General Assembly chooses to provide victims of child sexual abuse an expanded chance for justice, I can in good faith defend the legislation should it be challenged in court."
In response to the lawsuits filed, the Maryland Attorney General's office said in a statement to CBS News that it "cannot comment due to pending litigation."
Lawmakers who worked to pass this legislation faced an uphill battle. C.T. Wilson, a member of the Maryland State House, introduced bills on this issue six times over the course of nearly a decade before it eventually passed. For Wilson, this issue was personal, sharing with colleagues in the legislature his own experience of surviving sexual abuse as a child after being adopted out of foster care.
"It stops the institutions because, you know, they are ran on money; [before] there was no risk of a lawsuit because there was a civil statute of limitations, and by the time they would bring it forward, it would be an old moot case," Wilson explained. "But now we can stop these predators in their tracks."
When the bill was finally signed into law, Wilson was standing behind Governor Wes Moore, and said, "This bill will not undo years of suffering, but maybe it will give us hope."
McLain, whose lawsuit was filed the same day the law went into effect, credits legislators like Wilson for the opportunity for justice. "Without them, we still be sitting in silence," she said. "I feel like I'm not only freeing me, I'm freeing people that may be there right now, the past and the future."
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