How Long After Being Molested Can You Press Charges?

Statutes of limitations in molestation cases create a deadline for victims of childhood sexual abuse and their families to press criminal charges or to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or any organization that may have aided or covered up child sex abuse crimes. Statutes of limitations are determined by individual state legislatures and can vary widely from state to state.

How long after being molested a victim can press charges will mainly depend on the state where the crime occurred, the victim’s age at the time of the abuse, and any other special circumstances of the case.

According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, the crime of molestation is most commonly associated with the sexual abuse of minors and can include touching or fondling of intimate parts of the body, the exposure of genitalia by an adult to a child, the creation of pornographic images portraying a minor child, rape, and other acts of a sexual nature that occur between an adult perpetrator and a child or between other children in front of the adult abuser.

Sexual contact with a child under 14 by an adult is always classified as a crime because the law does not allow minors to consent to sexual activity in any form. The term molestation is also sometimes used to describe incest, which includes criminal sexual acts perpetrated on a minor victim by a member of the minor’s own family. Molestation may also involve other crimes, including sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, prostitution, or sexual abuse of a child by a clergy member.

Statutes of limitations apply to both criminal and civil sexual abuse cases involving minors. However, the window for filing criminal charges may be different than it is in a civil suit. In many sexual assault cases, the statute of limitations for an adult victim begins from the date the abuse or injury occurred. However, most states suspend or extend the statute of limitations when the injured party is underage at the time of the abuse.

Child USA, an advocacy group in the United States that strives to abolish statutes of limitations for child molestation cases, found that most adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse don’t first disclose the abuse until they are 50 years of age or older.

Due to these findings, the federal government and 44 states have already eliminated statutes of limitations for reporting felony sex crimes committed against children.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Child Molestation?

States with No Criminal Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse

  • Mississippi
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Tennessee went one step further by terminating the statutes of limitations for both felony child sexual abuse cases and some misdemeanors.

The states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming all allow unlimited time to file criminal charges for any crime of molestation, regardless of whether it’s charged as a felony or a misdemeanor.

Currently, only Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Oregon still have a statute of limitations in criminal sexual assault cases involving minors.

girl in distress

What Is the Discovery Rule in Child Molestation Cases?

Society recognizes that their age and lack of life experience puts child victims of sexual abuse in a unique position. They may not immediately realize that a crime has been committed against them. Or, in situations where the perpetrator is a family member, underage victims may be unable to report it to the authorities. For these reasons and others, some states don’t start the clock on the window for reporting molestation until a victim turns 18.

Other possible time extensions rely on what is known as the discovery rule, which refers to the delayed discovery of a crime that occurs months or even years after it happened. Due to a better understanding of how the trauma response could cause a victim of molestation to repress memories of childhood abuse, many states have extended the period of time during which individuals are allowed to come forward with allegations against their abuser.

In some cases, it’s only after a victim enters therapy as an adult that they discover the issues they face are a result of the abuse they suffered as a child. Since the regular window for pressing charges is likely to have passed, some states don’t start the clock on the statute of limitations until a crime is discovered.

What Other Factors Impact the Statute of Limitations for Molestation?

Childhood sexual abuse crimes are prosecuted based on the severity of the offense. Felony-level sexual assault against a child carries much stiffer penalties, including lengthier prison sentences and larger fines, than misdemeanor offenses. The statute of limitations for reporting child sex abuse may differ in some states based on whether a crime is a felony or a misdemeanor.

The presence of DNA evidence may also extend the statute of limitations for childhood molestation cases if collected and preserved at the time of an assault.

What To Do if You've Been a Victim of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

If you or a member of your family has been a victim of child molestation, consider reporting the crime as soon as possible. It’s estimated that 70 to 95 percent of survivors of child abuse never report the abuse to the authorities.

When victims delay coming forward with their accusations, the window of opportunity to file criminal or civil proceedings can close, leaving them with few options for seeking justice.

woman asking a question

Is There Anything I Can Do If the Statute of Limitations Has Passed?

Even if your state’s criminal statute of limitations has passed, you may still have civil recourse against your abuser. State civil statutes are often different from criminal statutes, allowing victims to sue not only a perpetrator of abuse but also any organization found to have contributed, condoned, or covered up criminal acts of child molestation.

Statute of limitation revival — or so-called “window laws” — allow victims whose statute of limitations has passed to file a civil claim and recover damages from their abuser or other entity responsible for the psychological trauma of abuse. Window laws have been successfully used by victims who suffered sexual abuse by members of the clergy and at the hands of leaders within the Boy Scouts of America organization.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides state-by-state information about the statutes of limitations for civil suits involving molestation. The NCSL also provides information on whether or not a state allows an organization or entity to be named in a civil lawsuit filed in its jurisdiction.

If you still have questions regarding the statute of limitations for reporting child abuse, seek the guidance of an attorney or victims’ advocate group in your area. They will be familiar with the specific laws in your state and can connect you with local resources that will allow you to move forward with a case if you choose to do so.

The thought of coming forward with allegations of childhood sexual abuse after so many years have passed can be frightening, especially if your abuser is someone you know. However, many victims find that reporting what happened to them to someone else and holding their abuser accountable helps them to heal and regain control over a situation that once made them feel powerless.

If you need additional support or information on locating help in your area, contact the National Sexual Abuse Hotline. Trained operators can listen to your story and guide you in the next steps in your journey toward healing.