Native American boarding school abuse victims seek new law
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers are considering establishing a three-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse at Native American boarding schools to file lawsuits against organizations like schools and churches, a move that supporters say would allow survivors to have their stories heard.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to debate a measure Tuesday that would create the new time frame for victims to file civil claims and repeal a provision in state law banning victims 40 and older from recovering damages from people or entities other than the actual abuser.
Louise Charbonneau Aamot is one of nine sisters who unsuccessfully sued over alleged sexual abuse committed before 1975 at St. Paul’s Indian Mission, a boarding school in Marty, South Dakota. The 67-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa said officials need to ensure it never happens again at any school or church.
“We know that God’s with us on this journey. We’ve been through so much, and there’s so much pain,” she said. “But we’re hoping, you know, they listen to us this time.”
The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify sexual assault victims unless they come forward publicly.
Attorney Michelle Dauphinais Echols, the bill’s author, said it’s for “healing and justice.” Victims haven’t had an opportunity to have their cases heard on the merits of their claims, she said.
“I think this would be a great first step to just try to help them along their journey to healing and closure,” Dauphinais Echols said.
The South Dakota Supreme Court in 2012 dismissed the sister’s and others’ claims against religious groups including the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls. The court found that the lawsuits were filed years after the applicable statute of limitations had expired and that the diocese wasn’t liable because it wasn’t responsible for the children.
The new legislation would clarify that any person or organization engaged in the Native American boarding school system may be held liable for childhood sexual abuse. The bill’s original language would eliminate the statute of limitations, but an amendment aims to create a three-year window for filing claims, Dauphinais Echols said. It also would revive claims barred because the applicable statute of limitations has expired.
Christopher Motz, executive director of the South Dakota Catholic Conference, said the organization doesn’t have a position on the bill.
Democratic Sen. Kevin Killer, the bill’s sponsor, said lawmakers have the chance to end “this sad chapter” of South Dakota history by giving people due process and their day in court.
“I will fight till the day that I die,” Charbonneau Aamot said in 2015. “There is no child in this world that should ever go through what we went through.”