Commenting recently on this country’s responsibility to address the plight of young minority men struggling in poor, neglected communities, President Obama stated, “Really, that’s what this comes down to – do we love the kids?”
That same question can be posed as to our willingness to address the plight of survivors of childhood sexual abuse seeking justice – do we, as a society, love those who were sexually assaulted as children enough to take the necessary action to make justice attainable for these survivors? Do we love the more than 40 million survivors who must cope with the psychological and emotional long-term effects of their abuse and with a legal system that all too often favors their abusers over the abused, discouraging victims from even reporting the horrific crimes perpetrated against them? The child sexual abuse epidemic in this country cannot be stemmed or reversed until those who have been abused have reason to believe that the law will protect them, not revictimize them.
A slightly different, but related, question must be asked as well: Are we willing to require fundamental changes in the law’s mistreatment of survivors, not only because we care about them, but also because we value justice in and of itself? Is our yearning for justice as strong as our concern for the children who are unjustly abused, first by their perpetrators and then by our legal system? As presently constructed, every facet of our legal system fails to dispense justice to survivors.
Despite common knowledge that it takes years and often decades for sexually abused children to have the mental and emotional capacity to report their abuse, antiquated statutes of limitations bar legal redress entirely or force survivors to enter the legal system before they are ready psychologically – often with disastrous results. Notwithstanding recent advances in the neurobiology of trauma, untrained law enforcement officers and prosecutors discourage survivors from pursuing justice because their cases are “cold,” i.e., reports of the crimes occurred long after the acts were committed, and because survivors’ memories of the events may return sporadically and out of sequence. Even though recent studies have established that recovered traumatic memories are as accurate as other types of memories, judicial rulings prohibit the admission into evidence of such memories in survivor cases. No one observing these practices could conclude that they are designed to achieve justice for survivors.
The constitution of justice has been one of the great questions of political philosophy through the ages, dating back to the times of Socrates and Plato, right up to the present day. But we can all agree that at a minimum, justice must seek the truth and respect fairness, integrity, virtue, and individual rights. All of these components are lacking in the legal system’s disposition of survivor cases. If we, as a people, truly value these principles, we must demand fundamental legal reforms on all levels – legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, private lawyers, and judges. Only then, will justice become a reality, rather than an ideal only, for survivors who pursue the truth by holding their perpetrators accountable under the law.
The answer to the questions posed above is a simple one: To preserve and protect the legal rights of childhood sexual abuse survivors, we must love them and we must love justice.
According to Professor Cornell West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Let us commit ourselves to reforming our legal institutions to become more responsive to the needs and protective of the rights of adult survivors. At the end of the day, this endeavor will constitute the strongest expression of our love for survivors and for the justice they seek and deserve.
Written and submitted by:
Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel