Child Abuse Bill Becomes Law In Oklahoma, Amendment Sparks Controversy

Monday, May 15th 2017, 6:35 pm
By: News 9

Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law last week, giving child sex abuse victims longer to come forward, but critics say an amendment to the bill may actually be detrimental to some of the victims.

HB1470 was part of the Hidden Predator Act, meant to increase protections to child sex abuse victims. A paragraph was added, however, that protects the employer of the abuser, and some attorneys fear that clause is unconstitutional.

In March, Rep. Kevin McDugle (R-Tulsa) opened up for the first time about being molested by his youth minister. McDugle shared how hard it was to talk about the incident for decades and urged his colleagues to allow victims up to the age of 45 to come forward.

“That one night, for me, took me 35 years to get to a point that I could actually openly talk about it,” McDugle said. “I’m a Marine Corps veteran, a drill instructor, so it’s not a story that I wanted to tell.”

When the act passed through the legislature the bill's author Rep. Carol Bush (R-Tulsa) commended voters in support of the bill in a letter, stating, “The Legislature has done right by the victims of these crimes, and I’m humbled to have played a part in extending the statute of limitations.”

There was one big difference in the bill's final draft that Gov. Fallin signed, though, which addresses lawsuits against the employer of a predator. The provision only gives victims until the age of 20 to file a claim.

The new paragraph reads: 

“If the person committing the act of sexual abuse against a child was employed by an institution, agency, firm, business, corporation or other public or private legal entity that owed a duty of care to the victim, or the accused and the child were engaged in some activity over which the legal entity had some degree of responsibility or control, the action must be brought against such employer or legal entity within two (2) years; provided, that the time limit for commencement of an action pursuant to this paragraph is tolled for a child until the child reaches the age of eighteen (18) years, and damages against the legal entity shall be awarded only if there is a finding of gross negligence on the part of the legal entity.”

“I cannot help but feel that this legislature knew about the Perry case and purposefully created a law to punish these children so they couldn’t sue their school,” said attorney Cameron Spradling, who represents 10 of the 24 victims who reported being molested by a Perry teacher’s aide in class.

A closer look at the new law shows the victims must now prove the school district exercised "gross negligence" by failing to report the alleged abuse. Adults only have to prove simple negligence in similar lawsuits against entities.

Spradling explained with an analogy.

“There’s a wolf outside the door,” he said, “and negligence would be you failed to lock the door to prevent the wolf to come in and eat the children. Now with gross negligence, you’re going to have to prove that they knew it was a wolf and that they willingly opened the door and said, ‘wolf, come in and eat our children’.”

If the victim loses the lawsuit, they will have to pay attorneys’ fees for the entity they sued, eliminating the so-called “American Rule.”

The woman behind the Hidden Predator Act, Ginger Lewis, tells News 9's Jessi Mitchell that the main goal was achieved by increasing the statute of limitations for victims.

Lewis admits, however, that the amendment was added later without her group's support.

“The primary focus of our bill was to simply get the age up to 45," said Lewis.  "I certainly have no desire to make things any more difficult than they already are for survivors of child sexual abuse. I would fully support any initiative to revise the law.”

Gov. Fallin's office responded to the bill's passage with a statement that reads, in part: 

"The governor felt such an important provision should be allowed to proceed to provide added protection for countless victims of child abuse. The governor’s office notified authors of the legislation about the broadness of the language in the amendment and suggested they may consider correcting it in a trailer bill. Legislators who want to correct language in the amendment have several avenues they may pursue before the measure takes effect Nov. 1."