Beyond Memory: Child Sexual Abuse
and the Statute of Limitations
ROSS E. CHEIT AND CAREY JAROS
The sexual abuse of children in the United States has been widely recognized and condemned in the last twenty years. The problem has been transformed from something rarely acknowledged or discussed into something publicly acknowledged and abhorred. Child molestation is often described as “the most heinous crime other than murder.” But unlike murder, the legal responses to child sexual abuse have been ambivalent and inadequate. Prosecutions are rare (Gray, 1993) and a substantial percentage of those convicted of this “heinous” crime receive probation instead of prison (Cheit & Goldschmidt, 1997).
Martha Minow describes the legal responses to violence against children as a “middle case” between interfamilial adult violence, where legal separation is a useful solution, and intergroup violence, where separation may be impossible and coexistence is the primary goal. But the center is turbulent, not stable. As Minow explains: “We have been extremely torn in this country about whether to remove from the home children who have been abused” (Minow, 1999b: 7). The reasons to remove abused children are obvious; then again, there are two strong arguments against removal in the name of child protection: (1) the strength and importance of family preservation and (2) the pragmatic lack of better alternatives for children removed from their homes, or otherwise left parentless through legal remedies.
There is a legal approach that holds out the possibility of providing meaningful redress for child sexual abuse while avoiding the dilemmas posed by issues of child placement and custody. This approach relies on the simple fact that children become adults, and that as adults they are much better positioned to make decisions about possible legal claims that are, for a variety of reasons discussed in this chapter, virtually impossible to make as children. How well does the law accommodate