Lisa Flotlin was 16 and 17 years old when she said her high-school teacher sexually abused her.
"Overwhelmed with a sense of shame," and confused about what had happened to her, she didn't file a report. She said she didn't pursue prosecuting him until she was 25 years old. She thought she had a criminal case; so did the police officer, and the prosecutor.
They were wrong. Because she didn't file a police report within the first year, her statute of limitations had passed. At age 16 and 17, Washington's law for sexual assault essentially treats the accuser as an adult; that means she's allowed just three years after the alleged abuse to pursue criminal charges.
"That was the end of the road for me," said Flotlin, who's now 29. "It was devastating."
A bill proposed in the 2018 state legislative session would have allowed accusers to pursue criminal charges in felony sex offenses, no matter how much time had passed since the crime. This year, the legislation is getting another big push from advocates.
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center are urging state legislators this session t0 remove the statute of limitations for cases of first- through third-degree rape, sexual abuse of minors, and other serious crimes like some indecent liberties charges.
Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, told PubliCola the statute has long been arbitrary and too complicated, making it difficult for survivors to navigate.
Stone said last year's bill had started too broad with sweeping changes, which prompted resistance from legislators who disagreed with removing the statute altogether. This legislative session, she said advocates are focusing on simplifying the law and eliminating the deadline for serious sex offenses—like those involving minors and rape.
"It’s really been in the last couple years that we’ve seen statutes changing dramatically across the country," Stone said. "I think now is the time...We need to do this."
In the 2018 legislative session, the bill to remove the statute of limitations—sponsored by state representative Dan Griffey, an Allyn Republican—received support in the House but died in the Senate.
Senator Jamie Pedersen, chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, at the time had proposed a substitute bill to remove the statute only for first-degree child rape and child molestation. Ultimately that substitute legislation failed to move to a floor vote by the deadline.
Adult sexual abuse survivors—those 16 and older—who don't file a police report within the first year of the crime in Washington have just three years to pursue charges against their assailant. With a police report, it's 10 years.
"We have an opportunity to protect other victims," said Flotlin, who still worries whether her alleged abuser targeted others after her. (She said he's no longer teaching.)
But survivors of sexual assault list numerous reasons they may not come forward in that time frame. Historically, sexual assault has been the most underreported crime in the U.S.; in 2016, just 23 percent of those who experienced sexual assault reported it, according the National Crime Victimization Survey.
Less than 1 percent of sexual assault cases nationwide end with time served, according to anti-sexual violence organization Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network.
Advocates working with sex abuse survivors say the culture is changing; according to KCSARC, calls to its 24-hour hotline rose by 30 percent this year. The King County Sheriff's Office also say there's an influx in sexual assault reports, suggesting more victims are comfortable reporting the crime.
More reports also mean greater demand in investment; the state still hasn't increased funding enough to address its backlog of 10,000 untested rape kits. State representative Tina Orwall, a Des Moines Democrat, will introduce legislation to try to fix that.
Stone also wants state lawmakers to allow survivors to pursue protection orders after a sexual assault, without having to prove an ongoing threat, and to reform the definition of third-degree rape—which currently requires evidence of denying consent.
"We are denying justice and protection to people who suffered a crime for no good reason whatsoever," Stone said.