Uranus Watkins was only 14 years old when she says two employees of Ohio’s state-run Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility sexually abused, assaulted, and raped her over the course of a year while she was in custody.
According to a 2012 civil lawsuit she filed against Ohio’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), Watkins has lost employment, incurred health expenses, and suffered mentally, emotionally, and physically as a result of the violations, which reportedly took place from 2000 to 2001. Moreover, she argues, DYS continuously failed to properly investigate sexual abuse reports or implement policies preventing them within its facilities—despite, as she phrased it in her lawsuit, the department’s “knowledge of a history and patterns of problems within the organization.”
Less than two months after Watkins filed her case, though, the Ohio Court of Claims, which governs all civil actions against the state, granted DYS’s preliminary motion to dismiss it, ruling that Watkins’ right to action had expired under Ohio’s sovereign immunity statute. Under that statute, potential plaintiffs only have two years past the age of majority to level any civil claim against the state. Given that Watkins turned 18 in 2004, the court determined that she would have had until 2006 to lodge the complaint.
But Watkins and her attorney, Jill Flagg, assert that the “essential character” of the case is childhood sexual abuse, meaning that Ohio’s much longer window to pursue those civil claims—12 years past majority age—should apply. Under that law, Watkins would actually have until 2016 to file her suit.
“Most childhood sexual abuse victims will not get civil justice with a two-year statute of limitations,” Flagg pointed out to RH Reality Check in an email. The Court of Claims decision, she continued, essentially “says that the people of Ohio don’t care whether these victims [of violence in state-run facilities] get access to the court when they’ve been raped or molested.”
Even so, an appellate court affirmed the Court of Claims ruling in May 2013.
Watkins appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court last September, claiming the disparate application of the two statutes violates Watkins’ constitutional rights. The court then heard oral arguments in April of this year; the justices have not indicated when they will hand down a decision.
According to Mason, Ohio-based attorney Konrad Kircher, this is the first time the state’s highest court is interpreting the issue of sovereign immunity in child sexual abuse cases. But, he noted, the state legislature only implemented the 12-year statute of limitations eight years ago, making the law “still fresh in jurisprudence.”
Still, Kircher, who pursued dozens of survivors’ rights cases during Ohio’s clergy scandal in the early aughts, told RH Reality Check, “Does it surprise me [the supreme court] took the case? No. I mean, there is this apparent contradiction between the two years and the 12 years.”
And the implications of the case, Flagg says, are immense.
“If the court rules in our favor, all childhood sex abuse victims will get 12 years past their 18th birthdays to bring civil claims. It means equality in the legal system for all victims,” Flagg wrote to RH Reality Check. “This opinion will cause the state of Ohio to apply safeguards to ensure that children do not get sexually abused.”
But if the court sides with the state? “Many victims of abuse would be barred from bringing suit against the state and state facilities,” Flagg predicted…
Read more of my RH Reality Check article here: http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/09/15/ohio-supreme-court-child-abuse-survivors/
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