For many children, the thought of taking on their abuser in court can be too much. A new bill would give them a chance for justice as an adult. Henrico resident Fatima Smith’s story prompted the legislation.
“While I was asleep, he was touching me. I woke up to him touching me,” Smith recalled.
Competitive cheerleading consumed Smith’s childhood. She loved it all: the travel, the competitions and the trophies that came with it. Yet, she says it also enabled an adult in her cheerleading community to sexually assault her.
“He pulled the sheets back and pulled my pajama bottoms down and I didn’t have underwear on,” she said. “I remember feeling uncomfortable, pulling the sheets back up and I didn’t share what happened.”
Smith, who was just 12 at the time, remained silent. She says even though her mother had told her if anyone touches her inappropriately to speak up immediately, she didn’t really process it. This was someone in the trusted cheerleading community.
Smith finally spoke up when her alleged attacker was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting other girls. The middle schooler told her mom but they didn’t press charges.
“At the time my mom made the decision not to because the two girls who came forward were receiving death threats and hate mail,” explained Smith.
But when he was arrested again in another case years later, Smith was ready to go to court. She was in her early 20s.
“I am in a place where I can do this. I have a better sense of who I am because I am an adult. And then the prosecutor is like ‘unfortunately, you can’t.’ I just remember that day being like, I don’t want this to ever happen to someone else,” she said.
Smith was too old to report the crime.
“Right now, you have until you are 19 to report such a crime,” Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan of Richmond explained.
Sen. McClellan heard Smith’s story, which prompted her to introduce legislation to extend the statute of limitations for minors reporting sex crimes to five years after they become an adult. In other words, they would have until age 23 to press charges.
“The trauma of that is such that it takes a while to be ready to come forward,” McClellan said. “Sometimes, it’s the shame of what happened. Sometimes, they think they’ve been told it’s their fault.”
Opponents fear extending that time period could backlog police and flood the courts. Still, for Smith, it’s about giving those who are finally ready to face their attackers the chance to fight back.
“Most children don’t come forward until adulthood,” said Smith.
Smith’s experience has led her into a career helping sexual assault survivors heal. She plans to go before lawmakers and testify in support of the legislation.
Another bill in the House side proposes extending the statue of limitations to seven years after becoming an adult.