child abuse and the statute of limitations
January 24, 2008 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Questions about child abuse and the statute of limitations (unpleasant details inside)

My wife (age 24) recently admitted that between the ages of 6 and 12 when she visited her grandparents every summer she was regularly molested by one uncle and raped on occasion by another.

Obviously I was shocked to hear this but I have no reason to doubt her and her behavior fits the pattern that is displayed by victims of such crimes.

These events happened between 1989-1995 in Montana. I know that the perpetrators still have children in their own houses and at least one of them shows signs of abuse (i suspect of sexual nature).

A couple of questions. Now that my wife has finally shared this with me what type of legal recourse do we have against her child rapist uncle and her child molesting uncle? Is there a statue of limitations on such crimes and is it even possible to prove anything at this point?

Also, what do I do about my cousin-in-law who lives with the molesting (not the raping) uncle? Is it my place to blow the whistle? If anything like what happened to my wife is happening to him I cannot just stand by and let it happen. Just not sure how to go about it or who to call.
posted by prk14 to Human Relations (19 answers total)
Well, notwithstanding a statute of limitations, a 70+ year old neighbour of ours disappeared for a year. We read in the newspaper that he had (at the time) recently been charged and convicted with having an abusive/molesting relationship with his son when his son was a young boy. We eventually learned that year was court time + jail time. So it can certainly happen. The only difference is that when someone gets to that age with only one complaint from 60 years ago, people question whether they should still have to avoid every school in Canada for the rest of their lives, and even on conviction, the public will still question the validity of the outcome. And, since at that point you've proven you're not likely to re-offend, you go to jail for less than a year.

Just saying that, hey, just like Twinkies, some things will even survive a nuclear battle, but for best results, finish it before you're past the "best before" date.
posted by shepd at 10:32 AM on January 24, 2008

Don't know the law in Montana (or anywhere, really) so I'm not going to speak to the criminal liability of your wife's uncle.

About your cousin-in-law, you absolutely have the right to share your suspicions with whatever Montana agency handles "child and family welfare". Tell them the whole story. They've gotten similar calls and will have a process to follow.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:33 AM on January 24, 2008

I'm sorry. That must be really difficult for both of you.

Here is a list of Montana hotlines, if you scroll down, there's one for child abuse. I would encourage you to call - if you feel uncomfortable, you can even call from a pay phone across town or something - and just talk to them a little bit.

Child welfare agencies do have, as stupidsexyflanders says, procedures for dealing with these things. It isn't the case that if you place a single call, a family is going to get ripped apart without evidence. And if horrible things are happening there, you may be the instigator of a family getting help they would never otherwise have gotten.

Good luck.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:36 AM on January 24, 2008

I seem to recall reading something about some jurisdictions tolling the statute of limitations on this type of criminal prosecution (and civil liability) until the survivor reaches the age of maturity. If this is true, and there is a longer statute of limitations in Montana for these types of crimes, you wife may still be well within the applicable time frame in order for the appropriate prosecuror to pursue this. But that is all just speculation, since I'm not a lawyer in Montana. Talking to the police is a good first step. Also, it would be a good idea to speak to a group that represents missing and exploited children, and ask for a referral to an attorney who handles matters like this. That attorney will be able to provide guidance on how to proceed.
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:41 AM on January 24, 2008

Child Abuse reporting in Montana apparently goes through a central registry number: 1-866-820-KIDS (1-866-820-5437). If the uncles have access to kids you should POSITIVELY report. You are in the position to help now, and you are morally obligated to do so, IMO. The hotline workers also might be able to give you advice about your wife's claim.

The statute of limitations gets treated in a special way with child abuse reports, it's a state-by-state matter. It looks like in Montana the limit is 3 years, BUT the critical question is when the statute of limitations clock starts running. In some cases, it doesn't start until the person recovers the memory, or discovers that he or she was injured by the event.
posted by jasper411 at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2008

Is it my place to blow the whistle?

Legal question aside, this is a tough question that has no easy answer. Some people might weight the impact it would have on her family, whether your wife will become villified by those who do not believe her or who refuse to believe her, whether the person has reformed his behavior, the damage it might cause your wife to have a public trial, whether you could live with yourself if it turned out you could have stopped continuing abuse.

Talk to your wife and maybe a trusted figure (either religious, professional, academic, who knows). Some people can't live with inaction. Others cannot bear the costs of disclosure.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:06 AM on January 24, 2008

Is it my place to blow the whistle?

Not without your wife's full agreement. It is her secret, and she should get to say what you do with it.

The two of you need to talk through and be prepared for a whole range of potential outcomes before you tell anyone else.

The fact that whole last paragraph is written in the first person makes me think you are in the throes of an emotional reaction. It's natural and understandable to want to stop these guys and see them punished. But this may not be the best moment to make decisions with serious long-term consequences, especially on your wife's mental health and family relationships.

I think you should both get some counseling and talk to a lawyer before you proceed.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:39 AM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

make an anonymous call! the kid deserves to be protected (the investigators will hopefully be able to determine the truth about the situation). Your wife suffered something awful and it shouldn't have to happen to any other child.
posted by estronaut at 12:04 PM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I also wondered from your post whether you're considering doing something on your own. (Like the other posters I would certainly recommend that you not take any action before talking about it with your wife.)
posted by sparrows at 12:10 PM on January 24, 2008

I'm so sorry you're in this horrible situation. I totally disagree with the other posters that you shouldn't do anything until talking about it further with your wife. There are other kids in danger. You should bring your suspicions of abuse to the attention of the authorities and other family members, even if they might be offended. Don't share your wife's secret if she doesn't want to, but try and protect the other kids.
posted by emyd at 12:49 PM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer: I work with child welfare agencies in California, but I'm not a social worker.

You should report the situation with the children currently in the home. You say that "at least one of them shows signs of abuse." So, yes, you should report it.

You should really call anyway even if you don't see actual physical signs of abuse, but you legitimately suspect that it's occurring for reasons other than 'the uncle is an ass.' If CPS gets a report and follows up, they're going to need to have reasonable suspicion before they can open a case. They basically need something they can document. It's unfortunately not enough that the uncle is creepy and has molested kids before (especially if he's never been charged with a crime).

There is also the chance that the uncle has been reported before and you're not aware of it. Even if nothing came of a previous investigation, they will know that there have been (possibly unsubstantiated) reports on this guy, and it gives them additional grounds to open an investigation.

Many people hesitate to make a referral to CPS because of the prospect of disrupting the lives of a possibly innocent person. This is a legitimate concern. Some things you should know, though:

The kids likely come in contact -- daily -- with mandated reporters. Teachers, clergy members, school counselors, day care professionals, etc., are legally required to report suspicion of abuse or neglect. So if the kid is, as you say, showing signs of abuse, it's possible that a teacher has made a report already. I don't mean this to say that you should just wait for someone else to do the dirty work -- just that you shouldn't feel bad about reporting, and your report might tip the scale in favor of an investigation.

Secondly, if you make a referral, CPS will likely visit the home. (Might take a couple weeks, though, if they don't believe that there is an immediate danger to the child -- which is one of the big downfalls of the child welfare system.) If they can't substantiate the allegation, it's likely that nothing will happen. This will be incredibly frustrating. But, at least they have a record of a report. And if another report is made in the future, they might be able to substantiate it then.

Sorry, this is rambly. But yes, you should make an anonymous call to the hotline someone pasted above.

I'm sorry for you and your family, and I wish the best for you all.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:07 PM on January 24, 2008

Oh, and the issue with your wife is completely separate from the issue with the kids. Treat them separately. They are, for all intents and purposes, unrelated and should be pursued independently of each other.

And resist the temptation to confront the uncle or the other family members directly. That could backfire and it could end up having negative consequences for the kids. Let the social workers do their job. It's not a perfect system by any means, but they've been trained to handle these situations.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:10 PM on January 24, 2008

1. Suggest that your wife get in touch with a rape survivor group - at least in my area they offer both counseling and also a victim's assistance program. This would give her advice on what to expect when she deal with the police and/or courts as well as the right to have someone in the room when she being interviewed. The counseling (often free or very low cost) can help her figure out what the long term effects of the experience have been for her, even if she is handling it well.

2. Child abuse services would want to know about a situation where a child is currently at risk. Be warned that unless your niece is willing to talk, they may not do anything about it.

3. This is going to have a big impact on your wife and her relationship with her family. Make sure that you are paying attention to her needs as well as your anger
posted by metahawk at 1:26 PM on January 24, 2008

Looking at your other recent question, you two are obviously suffering an incredibly stressful time already, individually and as a couple. It must have been unimaginably scary it must have been for her to entrust someone with this secret. Don't mistake that act for a signal that she is ready to talk about it with others. Whether and how to tell others, including lawyers/police/courts, is a weighty decision for either of you to attempt to sort out on your own. It would be really good to have this conversation facilitated by a therapist who is experienced in sexual abuse counseling. Thinking about confronting her attacker(s), even indirectly through the justice system, and stirring up controversy within her family, is going to be very emotional for your wife. She needs to be the one in charge of that decision, and you both will need support coming to terms with whatever she decides. You want to do something for the woman you love, to relieve her suffering and punish those who have harmed her. Don't. Not without her clear-minded, unequivocal consent. Not without someone to hold your hand, and hers, through the process. You owe that to yourselves.

Then there's the separate issue of moral responsibility to a child who is in harm's way. Regardless of what your wife decides to do on her own behalf, someone needs to immediately notify CPS about the child. The sexual abuse therapist can help you there too. In fact, they're mandated reporters so if you choose not to make the report directly you can at lease provide the therapist with enough info about the child to ensure that his/her report to CPS is usable.

FWIW, a friend was sexually molested by an older relative throughout her childhood. So were her mother, aunts, sisters, and cousins. It was the family's dirty little open secret, and no one was supposed to tell. By the time she worked up the nerve to tell an outsider, the kindly old gentleman was already at work on a 3rd generation of his decendants and everyone in the family knew it. Healthy loving families protect one another; in a twisted way, so do deeply dysfunctional ones. In this case, they closed ranks and protected the predator from this legal "assault". At 17 years old, my friend was banished from her family for resisting the intense internal pressure to recant and lie. I don't know what your wife's family situation is like, and don't mean to imply that it's remotely the same. But allen.spaulding is right that speaking out often comes at a price for the victim.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:26 PM on January 24, 2008

If children might be being harmed today, no matter what your wife's opinion you have to tell someone. You have the knowledge, now, and anything that happens from this point on is as much your responsibility as anyone's. I know that sounds harsh and absolutist but that's my personal opinion. I agree that nakedcodemonkey above has it - it's a separate issue of whether or not YOU specifically notify the authorities, but at least someone has to, and it could be any mandated reporter who you tell.
posted by luriete at 1:40 PM on January 24, 2008

The statute of limitations may have run out for the criminal justice system, but you may still have recourse in civil court.
posted by availablelight at 2:56 PM on January 24, 2008

I'm a child welfare supervisor, though not in Montana (although oddly, I'm from there). However, I think that "access to a child by a convicted or alleged sex offender" is child abuse in most areas. I absolutely agree that you should report; if your wife wants to feel like she has some power over the situation, which is very important, I think, she can be the one to call. They cannot disclose the name of the reporter. Lots of times folks figure it out without the agency disclosing it, and if it gets to criminal court, and your wife has to testify, obviously the cat is out of the bag.

In my state, Oregon, if your wife made a credible disclosure, your niece would not have to disclose anything at all to be viewed as being at risk. What we would probably do is attempt to get your uncle out of the home and into a sex offender evaluation (complete with polygraph and plethysmograph-a test that measures sexual arousal to different stimuli, including children) in order to evaluate the risk he might pose. We would need to respond within 24 hours of receiving the call, and that's pretty much a national standard (whether or not individual areas meet the standard is another question, of course). The statute of limitation here on sex crimes begins with disclosure, not with the actual crime, so it's seven years or whatever once the report is made to law enforcement or to child welfare.

Where would this crime have occurred? Where do they now live? Law enforcement in teh are where the crime occurred will probably investigate. An urban police agency, esp someplace like Missoula, which is more liberal, is more likely to take this seriously in some cases than a small town.

Best of luck, and take care of each other.
posted by purenitrous at 7:04 PM on January 24, 2008

I don't have experience with the legal system and these issues, but a colleague co-wrote a book that you might find helpful once these immediate decisions have been acted upon. It's for the partners of incest survivors.
posted by jeanmari at 7:14 PM on January 24, 2008

Your wife should report what happened to her and what she suspects is happening to her cousin. It's the right thing. Sometimes, though, terrible things reach right from the past into the present and scare us into letting them continue. If your wife has decided she doesn't want to report this right now, it's her decision. However, it won't go away, and the issue will come again. Whatever her decision is, she will challenge it over and over again in early morning hours to the day she dies. She didn't ask to be given this burden of a secret, and she will carry it in her own way. You can help her with it, but you can't force her to carry it the way you & I might like. All you can do is help her, love her, and support her. Despite my strong feelings on this, it isn't your place at all to pick up that phone. It's hers.

Secrets like that just don't "come out" - there's a trigger to remember or think about what happened and a decision taken to tell the truth to the person who's asking what's wrong - instead of bucking the learned behaviour of many years and pretending nothing is wrong. Speaking as someone with her own parcel of very hurtful secrets, you don't revisit things like childhood sexual abuse unless you have a good reason. There had to be one for her to bring it up to you. Remind her of that fact, and maybe it will help her make a decision one way or another.

The thing she'd have to fight in herself to be able to tell her story to authorities is the pressure to not tell she's had reinforced by her family and her molesters over the years. If she was molested by a stranger, or a neighbour, she wouldn't face paying the same kinds of emotional prices for reporting that abuse. Molestors deal in fear to get their way and avoid detection. She's probably been subjected to several forms of emotional blackmail over the years that she'll have to find a way past. Maybe she already has, in telling you, and is ready to take the next step to protect her cousin? Or if not her cousin, her cousin's friends?

Molestors don't just molest one kid in their entire lives. If they only act once, by some miracle, the potential is still there. Sorry to bring this up, but at some point, you & your wife might have a daughter and your wife will have to face family gatherings with her unrepentant, pre-treatment molestors in the same room as her kid.

This issue will simply not go away if it is not reported. Your wife didn't start this, but she can end it.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:19 AM on January 25, 2008

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