ORLANDO WOMAN’S “WORST NIGHTMARE” INSPIRES FIGHT TO END FLORIDA’S STATUTE OF LIMITATION FOR CHILD SEX ABUSE
October 30, 2019
For almost 50 years, Donna Hedrick battled bouts of depression and nightmares while she coped with a traumatic past: When she was 15, a trusted teacher at her Orange County high school, in whom she had confided about problems at home, had invited her to his house. She went, hoping for help.
Instead, she said, he raped her.
In the years since, Hedrick has gradually found some peace, confiding in her husband and now-grown children — and even confronting her abuser on the phone. But about two years ago out of the blue, she got a call from an old classmate, who told Hedrick the teacher also abused her.
“It was like the worst nightmare,” Hedrick said. "There really were others.”
Now, thanks to Hedrick’s efforts, two lawmakers have sponsored legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
It wasn’t an easy path to get to this point.
After the other woman approached Hedrick, the Orlando dental hygienist tried to bring a criminal case against her abuser.
Donna Hedrick plays the piano in a photo from her 1973 high school yearbook. Hedrick said she was sexually abused by a teacher in her teenage years. Florida's statute of limitations kept her from seeking charges later in life. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)
But her momentum was soon halted. Authorities informed her that Florida’s sexual battery laws would not allow prosecutors to bring a case from so long ago.
“I just got so angry,” Hedrick said. “It puts you back in the same mind frame as [when I was] 15."
Hedrick, now 62, launched an online petition in 2017, which has since gained more than 27,000 signatures. This year, her vision is making strides in Tallahassee, where bipartisan lawmakers are taking up her cause. The bill on the House side, HB 199, is named after Hedrick: “Donna’s Law.”
“Donna’s been so courageous in talking about these things that are really hard to talk about,” said state Rep. Scott Plakon, a Seminole County Republican co-sponsoring the bill in the House. “Sometimes it takes years for these young people to process this, to start talking to people. We just think it’s the right thing to do to protect minors in the state.”
Stewart confident in bill’s chances
The corresponding bill in the state senate, SB 170, has already unanimously passed the senate’s committee on criminal justice. Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, sponsored the bill last year with success in her chamber, but it made no progress in the House. She’s hoping, with new bipartisan support, it can get the needed votes.
“We’re going to get it this year,” Stewart said during a recent meeting at her office with Hedrick, which an Orlando Sentinel reporter attended. “We need justice for the young who don’t know how to obtain justice until they get older.”
The legislation, if passed, would allow survivors of sex abuse that occurred when they were younger than 18 to press charges at any time. However, the bills are not retroactive, meaning they would not apply to Hedrick’s case, only those that occur after June 2020.
Hedrick said she still wants to someday pursue her decades-old case through additional changes to state law but knows the Legislature moves incrementally. A few states, including New York, have established a ‘lookback window’ that gives survivors of sexual assault a period, typically one year from when the law takes effect, in which they can pursue lawsuits against abusers for incidents in the past, or the institutions that bore some responsibility, such as churches or schools. Hedrick would love to see in Florida do the same.
Over the years, Florida lawmakers have eased the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse in certain circumstances, including for cases involving child victims younger than 16 and cases in which the crime alleged is a first-degree felony sexual battery.
But Stewart said Florida needs to take a stronger, clearer stance to protect all children.
“It was just ridiculous,” Stewart said, referring to the different scenarios outlined in Florida’s current law. "We just need to be consistent and afford those who have had to struggle in their early lives and are finally able ... to release what had happened to them, that [there] would be no time limitation for that.”
‘It’s just time’
Generally, cases must be brought within no more than four years of an alleged sex crime, the time frame that governed Hedrick’s situation.
"Children just don’t process it,” Hedrick said. "You don’t even process it as an adult very well because every time you think about it, you go back to being that child, you think about it the same way.”
Hedrick and Stewart said recent events in the news, such as the arrest of Rev. Bryan Fulwider, who was accused of repeatedly raping a girl from at a Winter Park church for years; and billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking dozens girls in the Miami area and around the world, should help show how needed these protections are for children.
“It’s just time," Hedrick said. “Any child from here on out who’s abused, they’re going to be taken seriously.”
Hedrick said addressing the issue head-on in recent months has given her some healing.
"There was real power in getting it out there and having people believe you,” Hedrick said.
She said she hopes lawmakers will take seriously how changing the law can help protect children.
“This by no means will catch every sexual offense that happens to a minor, but it will probably catch some," Plakon said. "Even if it’s its a small fraction that this law catches, we believe it’s well worth it.”
Even with support from victim advocates, its unclear what opposition these bills will face.
In other states, powerful lobbies such as the Catholic Church, insurance companies and Boy Scouts of America have opposed similar measures. Already, the Florida Public Defender Association has raised concerns about the ability to defend such dated cases because of “practical complications," like memories fading, records disappearing and physical evidence hidden away or impossible to find.
But Plakon, Stewart and Hedrick noted the bill would not change the standards of evidence needed to pursue a criminal case.
“Even if children don’t understand this law if something happens to them, I hope whoever the perpetrator is will always know, that there’s never a time I should feel safe, they could bring charges any time in my whole life," Hedrick said.
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