Within the past decade, stories have surfaced about systemic sexual assaults and abuses within some of the country’s most venerated institutions and organizations. Institutional sexual assault and abuse cases can be brought in both the criminal and civil justice system in Florida. We’ll cover what institutional sexual abuse is and how victims can seek justice in the State of Florida with a personal injury attorney.
What is Institutional Sexual Abuse?
Institutional sexual abuse or sexual assault occurs when someone in a position of power abuses this power to sexually molest or assault a victim. This can include relationships like teacher to student, camp counselor to camper, coach to athlete, pastor/priest to child, or correctional officer to inmate.
Another common form of institutional sexual abuse involves nursing home, assisted living, or group home employees who sexually harass or assault the patients in their care. In many cases, these patients have diminished mental or physical capacities that can make it difficult for them to understand or report the assault.
This sexual abuse can encompass everything from forcible assault or rape, to touching or fondling the victim, and even forcing them to watch pornography or another person’s sexual performance. In many cases, institutional sexual abuse may begin with inappropriate comments and then progress to more serious physical assault.
How Are Institutional Sexual Abuse Cases Uncovered?
Institutional sexual abuse cases can be tough to spot if one isn’t paying close attention. Due to the natural power disparity between the perpetrator and the victim, as well as the level of control the perpetrator may have over the victim’s daily life, victims may be afraid that they’ll suffer retaliation if they report the assault. In other cases, the victims may suffer from dementia, ALS, or another medical condition that prevents them from making a report to facility supervisors or law enforcement.
Most times, these cases are often revealed only after a third party (like another resident, a family member, or a fellow employee) notices that something seems suspicious. For example, a family member may notice that his or her loved one becomes agitated or upset whenever a certain staff member enters their room and report these concerns to the facility’s manager.
Some perpetrators tend to assault multiple people over a short time period. In that case, institutional sexual abuse may come to light after one victim makes a report, prompting an investigation into other potential victims.
What Recourse Do Victims Have?
Institutional sexual abuse is addressed by Florida’s criminal and civil statutes, providing victims with multiple routes to recovery.
If a perpetrator is alleged to have engaged in non-consensual touching or other sexual conduct with a vulnerable person in their care, he or she could be prosecuted for felony sexual assault. Any criminal penalties for this assault are enhanced if the victim is under age 18, has a physical or mental disability, or is unable to consent to sexual contact.
If the defendant is convicted of sexual assault for institutional sexual abuse, they will be required to register on Florida’s sex offender registry. This conviction will follow them for the rest of their lives, barring them from working in schools, nursing homes, or other organizations ever again.
Unfortunately, there is a statute of limitations for many criminal sexual assault crimes — if the abuse isn’t reported to law enforcement within the appropriate timeframe, police and prosecutors may be unable to bring charges. Although this statute of limitations can be paused, or tolled, until the abuse is first uncovered, waiting too long to report abuse can insulate the perpetrator from any criminal liability.
In addition to any criminal penalties that can attach to institutional sexual abuse, the organizations that allow these abuses to occur (and the individuals responsible for engaging in or facilitating this conduct) can also be held civilly liable. This allows the victim (and, in some cases, their family members) to recover financial damages.
To hold an organization civilly liable for institutional sexual abuse, the victim will need to show three factors: (1) the institution owed the victim a duty of care; (2) the institution breached this duty; and (3) this breach resulted in physical, mental, or emotional injuries.
Establishing the first prong is fairly routine. But showing that the institution breached its duty of care—for example, through a lack of employee screening or failure to follow up on initial reports of abuse—and proving the damages that have resulted from this breach can be a challenge.
Working With A Personal Injury Attorney
It’s important to explore your options with an attorney before pursuing (or settling) an institutional sexual abuse claim. Going against a big corporation or organization can seem like a great deal of stress, but having an experienced personal injury attorney with years of experience in the courtroom can bring help hold the responsible party accountable, help you recover financially, and hopefully bring you peace of mind.