Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, stands on the floor of the Alabama Senate on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
A bill to extend the statute of limitations for people who have been sexually abused as children could start moving after the bill’s sponsor threatened to stall legislation on the Senate floor.
Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who said an unnamed insurance company had been holding up the bill, said Thursday morning that she was stepping back from a threat to delay the Senate’s adoption of agendas each day.
“I don’t have to now,” Coleman said of her threat in an interview Thursday. “Because as of yesterday morning, I was contacted by the powers that be that I called out the other day.”
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The legislation is one of the first bills that was filed for the coming legislative session. Coleman filed a similar bill during the prior year’s session, but it stalled in committee.
Under current law, victims must file a suit by the time they turn 25 years old. Coleman’s bill, SB 127, would extend the statute of limitations from six years to 36 years after a victim has turned 19 years old. The bill, which is retroactive, allows victims less than 55 years old to file civil action against their alleged abuser.
The bill provides a two-year window for extending the statute of limitations for people to file their civil claims.
SB 127 had a public hearing last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has not yet come up for a vote. Thursday was the 23rd day of the 30-day legislative session; the bill needs a minimum of four days to get to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.
Coleman made her feelings about the delay known on the floor of the body Tuesday, putting the bill’s opponents on notice about the potential consequences of further stalling that particular piece of legislation.
“This should be a no-brainer,” she said. “Bills like this are passing all over the country, but in the Alabama Senate, it is being held up.”
She even called out an unnamed insurance company who she believed to be the culprit, demanding the principals speak with her about their concerns.
“I heard over the weekend there may be one of the big boys in the insurance industry has an issue,” Coleman said on the floor. “They gave me the name. They gave me the entity. Those folks have not called me one time to have a discussion with the sponsor of the bill about this issue.”
The senator Thursday said the parties met on Wednesday to iron out the language of the legislation and agreed to meet again next week after researching the issue further. The research would include what other states are doing, focus on the perpetrators and hold organizations that may have enabled the abuse responsible.
“So for example, if there was a small child care center, where a child was abused years and years ago or a church where a child was abused, nobody reported it, they didn’t know anything about it,” Coleman said. “We’re going to make sure those folks don’t get caught up with this legislation, but also make sure that those folks or those entities that were reported to and they did nothing, that they are held accountable.”
The legislation has the support of several survivors. Among them is Stuart Vance, one of three men who accused a former Randolph School teacher of abusing them in the 1970s and 80s. Delbert Bailey, the teacher that Vance and others have accused, has denied the allegations.
“I didn’t tell anyone at the time what happened to me,” Vance told the Senate committee on May 10. “A combination of fear and embarrassment kept me quiet then and in the intervening years. In 2018, I decided I could no longer let that abuse have control over me.”
Child USA published in a report in 2020 that victims generally do not report the abuse until years later. The average age that victims come forward is 52 years old.
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“Last week, we had folks come and give their stories,” Coleman said. “The level of vulnerability, to be able to come before this body, that makes laws, and tells how you were abused as a child. And appeal to the committee, to pass something where these folks can get some level of justice.”
Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to allow it to move forward, said on May 10 that the bill had only been scheduled for a public hearing that day, not a vote.
“I think there are several folks who reached out to, who will be reaching out to her if they haven’t already since yesterday,” Barfoot said in an interview Wednesday. “What I don’t want to do is to pat ourselves on the back and pass a bill out of committee that doesn’t have the opportunity to accomplish the goal that she is trying to accomplish.”
Barfoot however, failed to elaborate on the specifics.
Coleman’s bill will have to move quickly through the Senate to get to the House.
“We’ll see how it goes in the next week or so,” Barfoot said.
Jemma Stephenson contributed to this report.
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