Ohio’s Conflicting Statutes Create Obstacles for Some Abuse Survivors

Uranus Watkins was only 14 years old when she says two employees of Ohio’s state-run Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility sexually abused, assaulted, and raped her over the course of a year while she was in custody.

According to a 2012 civil lawsuit she filed against Ohio’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), Watkins has lost employment, incurred health expenses, and suffered mentally, emotionally, and physically as a result of the violations, which reportedly took place from 2000 to 2001. Moreover, she argues, DYS continuously failed to properly investigate sexual abuse reports or implement policies preventing them within its facilities—despite, as she phrased it in her lawsuit, the department’s “knowledge of a history and patterns of problems within the organization.”

Less than two months after Watkins filed her case, though, the Ohio Court of Claims, which governs all civil actions against the state, granted DYS’s preliminary motion to dismiss it, ruling that Watkins’ right to action had expired under Ohio’s sovereign immunity statute. Under that statute, potential plaintiffs only have two years past the age of majority to level any civil claim against the state. Given that Watkins turned 18 in 2004, the court determined that she would have had until 2006 to lodge the complaint.

But Watkins and her attorney, Jill Flagg, assert that the “essential character” of the case is childhood sexual abuse, meaning that Ohio’s much longer window to pursue those civil claims—12 years past majority age—should apply. Under that law, Watkins would actually have until 2016 to file her suit.

“Most childhood sexual abuse victims will not get civil justice with a two-year statute of limitations,” Flagg pointed out to RH Reality Check in an email. The Court of Claims decision, she continued, essentially “says that the people of Ohio don’t care whether these victims [of violence in state-run facilities] get access to the court when they’ve been raped or molested.”

Even so, an appellate court affirmed the Court of Claims ruling in May 2013.

Watkins appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court last September, claiming the disparate application of the two statutes violates Watkins’ constitutional rights. The court then heard oral arguments in April of this year; the justices have not indicated when they will hand down a decision.

Read the rest of my RH Reality Check here.