RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A bill making its way through the Virginia General Assembly would allow child survivors of misdemeanor sexual abuse to press charges years after they become adults.
Currently, in Virginia, childhood victims have only until the age of 19 to take legal action for misdemeanor sex crimes, like sexual battery. Senate Bill 724 would extend the statute of limitations to 23 years old, giving child survivors more time to work through the trauma and ultimately face their abuser in court.
For many childhood survivors, like Fatima Smith, coming forward after abuse takes many years.
“I wake up to him in my room touching me,” Smith recounted of abuse she says she suffered from a local cheerleading coach, which NBC12 is choosing not to name to protect the privacy and emotional state of other survivors who encountered him.
Smith says the moments when she was violated 19 years ago, are still at the forefront of her mind.
“I don’t feel comfortable sleeping without being fully clothed,” she said.
At 12 years old, Smith says she was one of the multiple cheerleaders sexually abused by the local coach. She says the sport was at the center of her and many of her teammates’ lives. Smith recalled what she says was clear grooming behavior - the coach offering private cheer lessons at the gym for hours, constantly messaging the girls and giving them gifts.
Her story of abuse begins after she accidentally left her house keys in the man’s car after he dropped her off from practice one day. She asked him to return the keys over a weekend.
“He goes, ‘On second thought, I’ll come by Monday,” said Smith.
The Monday the coach decided to come by Smith’s home to return the keys, was during the summer - when Fatima’s parents were at work.
Smith says he let himself into her house unannounced that morning, while she was still sleeping. She says he came into her room, sat on her bed and began stroking her body.
“I remember him pulling back my pajama bottoms and him saying something to the effect of, while stroking my face, ‘I’ve been touching you for a while. I was wondering when you were going to wake up,’” she said.
Not long after that incident, the coach was arrested and charged in cases involving two of Smith’s cheer friends. But despite the accounts from the girls, he was ultimately not convicted.
At the time, Smith didn't press charges for her own abuse. She says the victims who did were scorned and ostracized by both adults and peers in their cheer circle.
“Everybody said, ‘Y’all are liars. You’re wrong,'” she recounted.
The coach remained at the same gym for several more years.
In 2011, he was charged again, after another five girls came forward. Two described drinking, sex and explicit texts. One claimed multiple intimate encounters at the gym, according to previous reports by NBC12.
"It was a whole different kind of trauma because I felt like I had already failed the first two girls by not coming forward when it happened to me,” Smith explained.
This time, the coach was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years behind bars.
But Smith is still haunted by regret over whether she may have been able to stop the coach sooner, by coming forward when she was emotionally ready, in her early 20s.
However, Smith was not able to press charges at that time.
“The statute of limitations had run out," she said.
Virginia Senator Jennifer McClellan’s bill would change that. Similar measures have failed before in the Commonwealth with the concern of case overload for prosecutors and courts, or difficulty proving allegations.
“Whether it’s one year or longer, the prosecution is still going to have to prove that case,” said McClellan. “But we still need to make sure they still have an opportunity to seek justice.”
“So often we ask the question of, ‘Why did you wait so long?’” said Smith. “Well, there’s guilt. There’s shame. There’s retaliation. There’s lack of resources or the fear of resources being taken. If folks could kind of change the questioning to, “Why as a society do we find it so hard to believe this type of crime?"
Senate Bill 724 is expected to be taken up in another hearing on Monday. A sister bill in the House proposes extending the statute of limitations to 25 years old - seven years after becoming an adult.
Smith is now a survivor advocate and speaker, dedicating her life to helping other survivors heal.
Copyright 2020 WWBT. All rights reserved.