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'It's an embarrassment to our state': Lawmakers, advocates describe shortcomings of Iowa's legal system to protect survivors of child sex abuse

Iowa has removed the statute of limitations in criminal sex abuse cases, but not civil ones. Many survivors, assaulted as children aren't able to sue for damages.
Credit: WOI-TV
"Sophia," a 21-year-old who lives in Iowa, was sexually abused between ages five and seven.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa is making progress when it comes to protecting survivors of child sexual abuse, but the state still has a long way to go: that's the message four advocates shared in a Thursday afternoon forum on Facebook Live.

The event was hosted by Ankeny mother and former candidate for Iowa Senate in District 19, Amber Gustafson, who shared that she is also a survivor of sexual abuse. The forum also featured State Senator Janet Petersen, of Des Moines; Kathryn Robb, the executive director of Child USAdvocacy; and Marci Hamilton, Founder and CEO of Child USA.

Gustafson spoke of the progress that Iowa has made, while referencing Iowa's elimination of the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex abuse in criminal cases, and other nationwide awareness.

"There really is such an enormous amount of momentum from the Me Too movement, to the Nassar situation, USA Gymnastics, Boys Scouts," Gustafson said. "The ball really is just picking up momentum."

However, she acknowledged the progress has fallen short in terms of prosecuting civil cases.

Sen. Petersen pushed for a bill that would eliminate Iowa's statute of limitations in civil cases, passing out of the judiciary committee in the 2021 session. However, it stalled. The current law dictates that survivors of child sexual abuse by a teacher, counselor, or school employee only have a span of five years to come forward. 

RELATED: Iowa law eliminating statute of limitations for child sex abuse doesn't go far enough, critics say

That worries Petersen.

“I’ll just say it’s absolutely a horrible law that we have on the books," she said. "If you look at the number of people that hold licenses with the state that work for schools, more than 50 of them have lost their license or had it revoked because of child sex abuse just in the past few years alone."

She added, "This is just a terrible law that should not be on our books; it’s in an embarrassment to our state."

Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said one of the reasons bills like the one Petersen pushed for typically get stalled are because of insurance companies and religious institutions.

"It’s the same culprits all over the country," Hamilton said. "They lobby like it’s their job, because it is. And it’s really, many of the religious groups do not want any more of their secrets spilled, they’ve had enough of looking bad. And universities don’t want to be held to account, schools don’t want to be held to account. No one wants to look like they’re bad to children."

RELATED: In Iowa, the cost of rape is significantly high

Robb, also a survivor of sexual abuse, said parents should be proactive in protecting their children.

"Speaking as a survivor and also speaking as a parent of five, that empowering children with the right to say no," Robb said. "Empowering children with accurate language around body parts. Empowering children that they can say no to an authority, to someone in a position of authority, they can say no to a family member, and empowering children to know that any secret is generally not a good secret."

RELATED: 'You're taking away a child's dignity': Survivor shares story as Iowa passes sexual abuse laws