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American School for the Deaf: The Clock May Be Ticking for Abuse Survivors

September 24, 2020

When people learn of a childhood sex abuse scandal, their mind may reflexively think of clergymen or camp counselors. However, while the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church have regularly appeared front and center in the news for the horrifying sexual abuse that ran rampant within their respective organizations, they are by far not the only organizations harboring such awful secrets in their past. In fact, earlier this year such a scandal was uncovered in Connecticut’s very own backyard. In February 2020, following an independent investigation, credible reports of physical and sexual abuse were found against the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. Per its own website, the American School for the Deaf was founded in  1817 and was “the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.” The school educates both boys and girls from pre-school through age 21 and offers both boarding and day school experiences. Despite the American School for the Deaf’s long history and prestigious reputation nationally and abroad, the independent investigation found that the allegations of sexual and/or physical abuse leveled against nine of the school’s former employees were “credible.” The investigation also found that staff members engaged in “multiple instances of past sexual abuse, and physical abuse and/or corporal punishment from the 1950s through the 1980s.” The accusations against one former school employee involved children "who would have been 12 years old or younger at the time of the abuse."

Unfortunately, the victims of the abuse at the American School for the Deaf may find limited recourse under Connecticut’s civil justice system. Under current Connecticut law, in order to file a civil lawsuit stemming from childhood sexual abuse, a victim must bring his claim by the time he turns 51-years old. See C.G.S. § 52-777d. Of note, however, up until October of 2019, Connecticut’s statute of limitations barred claims brought after a victim’s 48th birthday, and the change to 51-years old was not retroactive. As the reported abuse at the American School for the Deaf spanned decades, there is a strong chance that a victim’s claim may already be time-barred. Thus, if a survivor does make the brave decision to come forward about his abuse, he needs to be aware that he only has a restricted amount of time to seek justice. This is particularly important for cases of childhood sexual abuse, as evidence has shown that it takes decades for victims to come to terms with their abuse, and sometimes even longer to report it. A 2014 study from Germany, which included 1,050 subjects, found that men and women were 52-years old, on average, when they first reported childhood sexual abuse. See Spröber, N., Schneider, T., Rassenhofer, M. et al. Child sexual abuse in religiously affiliated and secular institutions: a retrospective descriptive analysis of data provided by victims in a government-sponsored reappraisal program in Germany. BMC Public Health. 2014; 14: 282. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-282. While no similar study has been performed in the United States, CHILD USA, a non-profit think tank, has also published statistics citing the average age of disclosure for childhood sexual abuse survivors as 52-years old. Thus, even Connecticut’s current statute of limitations arguably falls short of capturing instances of childhood sexual abuse before they are even reported.

The topic of expanding, or even eliminating, statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims has been the recent subject of much debate across numerous jurisdictions in the United States. Connecticut’s neighbor, New York, made headlines in 2019 when it extended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits arising from child sexual abuse to when the victim reaches the age of 55. The old statute of limitations blocked any claims where the victim of child sexual abuse was older than 23-years old. In addition to expanding the statute of limitations, New York law also provides a one-year window during which survivors of child sexual abuse whose claims would otherwise be time-barred can bring an action. Vermont has gone even further than New York, setting an impressive standard for the rest of the US by completely abolishing its civil statute of limitations on cases arising from childhood sexual abuse cases. Earlier in 2020, a Connecticut legislative task force unanimously recommended that Connecticut eliminate the statute of limitations for civil sexual assault cases, which would allow victims to hold their abusers accountable at any point in their lives. Unfortunately, for those abused in Connecticut, including those abused at the American School for the Deaf, it is unclear if the statute of limitations will ever be expanded in a way that allows them to seek justice. Victims need to be aware that the clock may be ticking on their chance for justice.

Nicole B. Coates
Silver Golub & Teitell LLP

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