A bill that would remove time limits for prosecuting sexual battery on minors cleared its first hurdle in the House Wednesday. Lawmakers heard powerful testimony from a survivor of sexual assault, who now advocates for victims.
“I was raped at a party when I was in high school by five older men, and it wasn’t only traumatic – it was also very confusing,” said Kat Duesterhaus, a member of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence’s survivor caucus, along with a number of other advocacy groups.
“My memories of the assault are like clips from a movie. Flash – I’m clawing at his back, but he doesn’t stop, he’s raping me. Flash – I have become a dot on the ceiling,” she recalled, describing the dissociation some victims experience as a response to trauma.
Duesterhaus says it took years for her to file a police report:
“Afterwards, and for years, I blamed myself for failing to resist. I felt ashamed. That is why it took me years to fully acknowledge, even to myself, that I am a survivor of sexual assault,” she told the House criminal justice subcommittee.
When she did, she couldn’t believe law enforcement’s response:
“The officers asked, ‘Did you actually say the word no? Why didn’t you scream for help? Why didn’t you put up more of a fight?’”
Duesterhaus was told it was too late for an investigation based on statute of limitation – something that happens to so many victims when they come forward years later.
A bill with bipartisan backers looks to remove those time limitations when the victim is a minor. It’s carried by Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis and Republican Rep. Scott Plakon.
“Currently, there are different limitations based on the offender’s age, and the victim’s age,” Davis explained. “So, HB 199 would create Donna’s Law to remove all statutes of limitations and permit prosecution to be commenced, at any time, for any sexual battery offenses involving a victim younger than 18 at the time the offense was committed.”
Rep. Plakon explained “Donna’s Law” got its name from another victim of sexual assault:
“We named this bill Donna’s Law after the very brave Donna Hedrick, who lives in Orlando, and was sexually assaulted at Oak Ridge High School by her choral teacher,” Plakon said. He told his colleagues the teacher who assaulted Hedrick also had other victims.
“But because of the statute of limitations, this man cannot be prosecuted,” Plakon said. “Today he is receiving his pension as a former teacher, and he’s tutoring minors, part-time, in retirement.”
The Seminole County Republican also explained why victims often don’t immediately come forward.
“Victims who report sexual abuse often delay doing so for reasons related to neurobiological and psychological responses to their assault,” he said.
Duesterhaus says she counts the bill moving forward as a small victory in the larger fight against sexual violence. She had other victims in mind when the bill passed unanimously, and with no debate.
“There have been so many people since I started sharing that I’ve been going to speak on behalf of Donna’s law, who have written me privately and told me that they were affected by this same statute of limitations,” Duesterhaus told WFSU. “So, I came up here with the support of countless other survivors, that are cheering right now just as much as I am for removing this. And we’re hoping that it kind of opens the door a little bit for us to tackle the statute of limitations for all survivors. Because regardless of age, it takes time to process this.”
The House bill could see a change coming to it as it moves along through the process. Plakon said he likes the idea of adding civil lawsuit language to the bill.
Democratic Senator Linda Stewart of Orlando is carrying companion legislation, which is now on its second of three committee stops.
The measure would not apply retroactively. If approved by the legislature, it would take effect in July of this year.