ASKED & ANSWERED: Elizabeth Abdnour on extending statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse


Elizabeth Abdnour, a Lansing-based attorney with the international law firm McAllister Olivarius, focuses her practice on cases covering civil rights, employment, education, disability, and sexual and domestic violence. Her experience includes working as a civil rights and Title IX investigator at Michigan State University during the Larry Nassar investigation. She is also a founding member of the Board of Advisors for The Firecracker Foundation, which provides services and support to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

What is this new bill regarding childhood sexual abuse?
The Michigan Legislature is expected to introduce a new bill that will give survivors of childhood sexual abuse more rights to hold perpetrators and the institutions that employ them accountable. The expected bill would the civil statute of limitations, allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims until they are 52 years old. The bill is also expected to include a two-year amnesty period, effective after the law is enacted, that will allow anyone to file lawsuits against their abusers, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

What is the current law and why is this bill essential?
Currently, Michigan law only allows survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits until they are 28 years old. This restriction prevents otherwise valid claims from proceeding. We know that many victims of sexual assault can take years to process what happened to them. Unfortunately, by the time they are prepared to confront their abuser in court, many of these cases have expired.
This bill would empower survivors of child sexual abuse against their abusers. Victims would also be able to bring claims against the institutions that allowed the abuse to happen, including public institutions such as hospitals and schools, as well as religious institutions.

What are some common misconceptions about this bill and the civil justice system?
Holding abusers accountable through the criminal justice system typically involves the police taking a report, prosecutors deciding whether to move forward with the case, a trial process, potential plea deals, and more. Survivors have little or no voice in the process, and no control over it. The civil system, however, is an avenue that allows survivors to seek justice directly from their abusers and the institutions that enabled them. In the long run, many survivors have expressed to me that the abuse itself was awful, but the schools, religious institutions, and workplaces that turned a blind eye caused them deeper and longer-lasting trauma. People expect that when they report abuse to an institution, it will take their report seriously and protect them from further harm, but often, this is not what happens. This bill would allow survivors to seek accountability from institutions that have enabled abusers and would hold those institutions responsible for the damage they have caused.

How might this bill differ in a positive direction from similar laws passed in other states?
The average victim of child sex abuse is 52 years of age by the time they report what happened to them. Ideally, the statute of limitations would be extended past age 52, but, if passed, the Michigan bill would still go further than similar bills in other states. Survivors over the age of 52 should be able to bring cases within the expected two-year amnesty period, another aspect of this bill that differs from those passed in other states.

Please comment about your work during the Nassar investigation:
I was working in the Title IX Office at Michigan State University when the IndyStar article announcing the allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar was published in 2016 and the case was assigned to one of our investigators. While I did not work on this case directly, I was acutely aware of the situation as well as the betrayal survivors felt and the pain they carried with them when they did not have the opportunity to hold their abusers accountable. I have seen this in many cases. After holding on to their trauma for 20-plus years, survivors’ pain is often just as dire or even more severe as it was when they were initially abused.

Tell us about The Firecracker Foundation:
It is a nonprofit based in Lansing serving all of Mid-Michigan. Our mission is to provide any sort of support and services that child survivors of sexual assault may need. The foundation provides therapy services, support groups, various types of holistic healing practices like yoga and art therapy, doula services to minors who are pregnant, and more. There are many great organizations providing assistance to those pursuing Title IX cases in the higher education space, but The Firecracker Foundation focuses on the K-12 arena and is always looking for ways to support those who have experienced sexual trauma as minors.

Why are you passionate about your work?
Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to help people experiencing a variety of different legal issues. I’ve represented people going through divorce, losing their homes or public benefits, being terminated from their jobs, and other traumatic experiences. These experiences typically occur within a finite period and people are generally able to move forward once the problem is resolved. However, childhood sexual abuse tends to have a deep and long-lasting effect on people. It’s something that forever changes people, and I believe we as a society have an obligation to give survivors the tools to heal rather than just cope with this trauma.


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