This week’s question comes from Shauna, who writes:
Q: “I am the mother of a 12-year-old little girl, who just completed her first year of middle school, and a 10-year-old boy. Recently, my daughter started waking up in the middle of the night, crying from nightmares. She also seemed to be more withdrawn and argumentative with the family. When it started, I thought perhaps it was because she was entering puberty. After three weeks of this behavior, and my husband and I not being able to figure out what was causing it, we took her to a counselor. After a month of counseling sessions, my daughter said that an adult had ‘touched her’ and made her ‘feel dirty.’ This has been, and continues to be, my family’s worst nightmare. My child was in middle school and not involved in outside activities where she would be around adults unsupervised. The only babysitters I have allowed around her are my mother and mother-in-law. She doesn’t even go to neighbors’ houses to play. As a mom, I still follow my daughter into restrooms in public places. My husband and I believe this may have happened at the end of the school year, with a teacher or an adult on campus. However, she is not at a point in therapy where she wants to give many details about this at all. What do we do about reporting this and finding out some answers? I don’t want her to hurt even more from this all.”
A: Shauna, I am very sorry for what is going on right now, as both an advocate and as a father of two children myself. You have taken the critical first step, which is getting your daughter to a safe, neutral party, where she can feel comfortable talking. As your family comes to understand what has occurred, having that environment for her and the rest of your family will be very important.
The next step is to contact your local police department and Child Protective Services. Both of these agencies are charged with investigating crimes and have specific units to investigate child sexual abuse. The criminal investigation into this sexual assault is separate from what can be done for your family through civil litigation to find answers.
If a person assaults a child, he or she can be sued in civil court for the damages the person caused. Unfortunately, most individuals that commit these crimes don’t have assets to compensate the victims. Likewise, homeowner’s and personal liability insurance don’t typically cover these damages.
However, if a child is assaulted in the educational setting, the law requires the school to be held liable for the losses under certain situations. Because education is mandatory, the school your daughter attended has a very high duty of care in making sure she is properly supervised. As parents, we are entitled to have a safe and secure learning environment for our children. The school, as the employer of any staff, is also liable for acts of a teacher or other employee in the scope and course of his or her employment. However, the school must have known or had reason to know about the person’s propensity to assault or harm children.
In the school abuse cases that we have handled, we often find that there were prior complaints against a teacher. Sometimes, the teacher is transferred from another school district, or other students complain that the teacher is too “touchy feely” with students.
There have also been instances where the school district investigated complaints, yet allowed the individual to return to the classroom despite evidence of misconduct. This type of paper-trail can demonstrate that the school had notice that the individual could hurt other students.
Because school districts are government entities, special rules apply in regard to commencing starting civil litigation. When suing a school district, you must serve a 910 Government Claim Form on the district, and certain rules must be followed to provide the district notice that you will file a civil case. The rules about serving this document, what must be included in this document, and when it must be filed, are very specific. I urge you to contact an attorney should the assault on your daughter be school related.
The school district will likely deny or fail to act upon the claim form. Then, you may proceed with your civil lawsuit. This, too, has stringent rules regarding time and service.
Civil litigation can be very difficult for young children who were abused. They have been traumatized and must relive this event through the pendency of the court case. In discussing your legal options in how to hold the wrongdoer accountable, Shauna, the attorney should always consider and place paramount your family and your daughter’s emotional well-being.