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Survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Arkansas are again able to file legal claims against their perpetrators, this time with no age limit for plaintiffs, thanks to a state law amended last year.
The Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act became law in 2021 with bipartisan support, allowing survivors under 55 years of age to file claims between Jan. 28, 2022 and Jan. 31 of this year.
The law’s sponsors, Sen. David Wallace of Leachville and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould, both Republicans, put forth an amendment to the law in 2023 that removed the age limit and created a new filing window that began Feb. 1 and will end Jan. 31, 2026. The amendment passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed it into law in April.
Wallace said Tuesday during a press conference at the Capitol that the Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act and other bills pertaining to sexual abuse are among “the best legislation” he has sponsored in his nine years in the Legislature.
“I am humbled by the folks who have come to me and shared stories with me,” Wallace said. “I have stood right down that hallway and sat with strong men and strong women with tears in their eyes, relaying to me the stories of how they were abused when they were children.”
Several men stood behind Wallace as he spoke at the press conference; only one, William Stevens, gave a speech of his own.
Stevens, who grew up in Hot Springs and lives in Alexander, said he was sexually abused at 10 years old by a leader in Arkansas’ largest local Boy Scouts of America council, the Quapaw Area Council.
Decades later, in 2018, Stevens sued the Boy Scouts of America in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
In August 2020, a Delaware judge approved the Boy Scouts of America’s multibillion-dollar proposed bankruptcy settlement, which Stevens opposed, saying it was unfair to those who were abused. The settlement allowed most councils to keep most of their unrestricted assets; the Quapaw Area Council was required to pay about $4.5 million of its $12.8 million in assets despite having more than 300 claims of abuse against it. The council covers 39 counties in Central, North and Northeastern Arkansas as well as a portion of the Delta.
North Little Rock attorney Josh Gillispie has represented 26 men, including Stevens, who say they were abused by Scout leaders in Arkansas. He also represents eight adults who say they were abused as children at The Lord’s Ranch, a residential treatment facility in Northeast Arkansas that closed in 2016. The Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act empowered the plaintiffs to file the federal lawsuit in November, their attorneys said.
Stevens was in his late forties when he came forward with his experience of abuse. The average age of disclosure for adult survivors of child sexual abuse is 52, according to Child USA.
The 2021 law led to more than 20 legal claims on behalf of more than 100 Arkansans who were sexually abused as children, Wallace said, but it became clear to him that removing the age limit was necessary.
“You could be 99 years old and you could file a claim under this law,” he said.
Wallace said he does not foresee another extension of the filing window but has not ruled out the possibility.
Stevens said he is grateful that he and other survivors “now matter” in Arkansas.
“In everyone’s life, we are given a very special task that is unique to us individually,” he said in an interview. “[For] myself and other survivors — because we are not victims — our main focus is to help other people on their path to recovery and healing.”
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.