Last October, North Carolina laws related to childhood sexual assault and abuse underwent a major overhaul when the General Assembly unanimously passed Senate Bill 199: The Sexual Assault Fast Reporting and Enforcement Act, or the SAFE Act. The SAFE Act amended various portions of North Carolina sexual abuse and assault laws in order to close legal loopholes surrounding consent, reporting of child sexual abuse, sexual abuse occurring online, and several other areas of the law.
One of the most significant changes in the law brought on by the SAFE Act was the extension of the statute of limitations for civil actions brought by survivors of childhood sexual abuse against their abusers. Previously, individuals who suffered sexual assault or abuse as a minor had only three years from the time they turned 18 years of age to bring a civil action against their abuser. The SAFE Act extends that statute of limitations to 10 years, meaning childhood sexual abuse survivors will now have until they are 28 years old to file civil actions against their abusers. Further, a victim of childhood sexual abuse will have two years to file a civil claim against their abuser after their abuser is convicted of a felony sexual offense related to the victim’s sexual childhood abuse.
Importantly, any person who was abused as a child and was barred by pursuing a lawsuit by the previous statute of limitations may now file lawsuit between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021.
Further, the SAFE Act also increases the time in which prosecutors can bring charges for crimes involving abuse against children. Specifically, prosecutors now have up to 10 years after the date of the crime to bring a misdemeanor criminal action against an abuser. Those crimes include sexual battery, indecent liberties with a child, misdemeanor child abuse, and failure to report child abuse. This portion of the law applies only to misdemeanors because there is no statute of limitations for felony crimes.
These changes in both the civil and criminal statute of limitations will help victims hold their abusers accountable for the harm they suffered as a minor by increasing the amount of time victims have to process their trauma and prepare to file a civil lawsuit against their abusers. The science of trauma has indicated that it can take years, or even decades, into adulthood for victims of childhood abuse to process, understand, and heal from their abuse. These changes are intended to give victims the time to do that and to fully prepare to hold their abuser accountable in a court of law.
The SAFE Act made several other major changes to North Carolina sexual assault laws as well:
Strengthening Existing Sexual Assault Definitions:
Prior to passage of the SAFE Act, North Carolina was the last state in the country where an individual could not revoke consent to have sex with someone. The SAFE Act expands the definition of rape and sexual assault, however, to include any acts which are done either without consent of the other person or after the other person has revoked their consent in a manner that would lead a reasonable person to understand that consent has been revoked.
Expanding the Duty to Report Child Abuse:
Prior to passage of the SAFE Act, the law only required a person to report suspected sexual abuse against a child when the suspected abuser was in a parental role and in a residential setting. This left a large gap in mandatory reporting requirements, since individuals were not required to report suspected abusers outside the home, such as coaches, camp counselors, clergy members, or youth leaders. The SAFE Act requires any person 18 years of age or older who “knows or should have reasonably known that a juvenile has suffered violent or sexual offense or misdemeanor child abuse” to immediately report that crime to local law enforcement, regardless of the abuser’s relationship to the child. Failure to report constitutes a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Required Training for School Personnel:
The SAFE Act also requires all school personnel who work directly with students in kindergarten through grade 12 to receive child sexual abuse and sex trafficking training starting in the 2020-2021 school year. The training must include best practices in prevention, the grooming process of sexual predators, warning signs of sexual abuse and trafficking, reporting requirements, intervention processes, and available resources.
Protections for Children from Online Predators:
The SAFE Act prohibits high-risk sex offenders, such as sexually violent predators or certain recidivist offenders, from engaging in any online conduct that could cause danger to children. “High-risk sex offenders” are now prohibited from doing any of the following online:
- Communicating with someone the offender believes is under 16 years old;
- Contacting a person the offender believes is under 16 years old;
- impersonating a person under 16 years old with the intent to commit an unlawful sex act with someone the offender believes is under 16 years old;
- using any website to gather information on someone the offender believes is under 16 years old; and
- using any commercial social networking website in violation of the site’s policy that bans convicted sex offenders from using the site, as long as that policy is posted in a reasonable manner that the offender is likely to see it.
Prohibiting Distribution of Drugged Beverages:
The Act updates the prohibition on distributing any food or drink substance that contains controlled, poisonous, or foreign substances, or any substance that might harm the person’s health or cause them discomfort. Previously this prohibition only applied to food substances. Any violation of this law would constitute a felony, the level of which is dependent on the effect the substance could have on the victim.
Additional Rights to Sexual Assault Victims:
The SAFE Act provides other various rights to victims of sexual assault, including the right to be notified by a district attorney’s office if their sex offender is requesting to terminate their sex offender registration. The victim must elect to be notified of such request, but if they do, the victim will have the opportunity to be heard by the court in proceedings related to the offender’s request. The judge in any hearing regarding the sex offender’s request is responsible for inquiring whether the relevant victim is present and whether that victim wishes to be heard. The victim can choose to be heard by oral statement, submission of a written statement to the court, or submission of an audio or visual statement.