The Vermont Senate this week passed a proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations in civil cases of childhood physical abuse.
The bill, approved by a vote of 29-0, builds on legislation passed two years ago that ended the statute of limitations for civil cases of past childhood sexual abuse.
The proposal that passed Tuesday was pushed by a group of now-aging people who say they suffered physical abuse while living at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, which closed in 1974.
The Senate also heard allegations of abuse that were committed at the Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster, senators said. Kurn Hattin is a charitable home and school that serves children ages 6 through 15 who have been affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship, or disruption in family life.
Neither Kurn Hattin or The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which ran the Burlington orphanage at the time it closed, returned emails Tuesday seeking comment.
Progressive and Democratic Sen. Christopher Pearson, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said a number of senators met with members of a group called the Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in January and heard emotional stories of the abuse they suffered.
“These were people who had lived at St. Joseph’s in the ’50s, in the ’60s and in the ’70s describing a systematic pattern of abuse and then turning to us and saying `can we help, could you just help us have access to the courts.’ That’s it,” Pearson said during the debate before the vote.
The bill is only for those who would seek civil damages for injuries suffered as a result of childhood physical abuse. The legislation defines physical abuse as any act that when it was committed would have been considered aggravated assault.
The legislation does not apply in criminal cases.
The legislation would allow damages against an entity that “employed, supervised, or had responsibility for the person allegedly committing the physical abuse only if there is a finding of gross negligence on the part of the entity.”
The Vermont House must still pass the bill for it to become law.
Getting the Senate to pass the bill is one of a number of steps the St. Joseph’s survivors are taking. They are also working on projects to build a physical monument, record oral histories and publish an anthology of those histories.
“One of our legacies will be having this law passed and helping to save and protect young people,” St. Joseph’s survivor Gene Clark, 67, of Essex Junction said in a video meeting after the Senate vote. He lived at the orphanage in 1964. “It’s a pretty big deal.”
In a Tuesday news release, St. Joseph’s survivor Debi Gevry Ellsworth said they have been seeking what they see as justice for a long time.
“Though it has been extremely tough at times, the healing and the bonds that have emerged from participating in this group have far outweigh(ed) the challenges,” she said in the statement.
In December Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan completed a two-year investigation into allegations of murder at the Burlington orphanage that was prompted by a 2018 report in Buzzfeed News.
Donovan said he could find no evidence of murders being committed at the orphanage, but he did find that abuse occurred and that the state’s law enforcement community failed to protect the children who lived there.
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