April 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. One local woman is hoping to close a loophole in a law that allows child abusers to avoid getting sued.
"I guess when it really hit me that it was time to release this was right after I was converted in December," Rhonda Sears explains in late 2020, she was admitted to the hospital. Her heart stopped, and she had to be shocked back to life.
She recalls her thoughts at the time. "I don't want to die and this not be known, and I don't want to carry this burden to the grave. This is not my burden to carry."
Sears says her near-death experience led her to release a secret she had buried for decades.
"When I was 14, I was sexually abused," she says. "I made an outcry to my mother who sent me away, and then I was later returned to her a few weeks later, and the abuse continued. My abuser picked me up, and the abuse continued for many, many years."
In February, she filed a police report with the Harris County Constable’s Office Precinct 4 in the area where the abuse started. However, the criminal case was closed.
According to the case report, "the statute of limitations expired 10/08/2003 when the complainant turned 28 years old."
A 2007 update to Texas law removing the statute of limitations on child sex abuse did not cover what happened to Rhonda in 1989.
"How you can make an outcry, but they can walk away free?" asks Sears.
"Unfortunately, I was not grandfathered in, so they suggested that file a civil suit."
In 2019 the statute of limitations for civil cases was doubled to 30 years, but Rhonda found out again that the updates to the law did not apply to rapes of minors going back to the time she was a victim.
"It should not be up to the lawmaker to decide when my heart can heal, when I am mentally ready to speak again after I’ve been threatened and abused," she says.
Texas House Representative Ann Johnson who served as Chief Human Trafficking Prosecutor introduced House Bill 2071 in March. It would remove any statute of limitations on sexual assaults against children.
"Right now for most of those victims, we have to look at them and say, ‘I'm sorry, but the courthouse doors are closed to you," says Representative Johnson.
"I don't want anybody to suffer that same indignity in Texas. I want to make sure that all victims know that the courthouse doors are open."
Johnson says the removal of a statute of limitations on civil cases could hit child traffickers where it hurts- in their wallets. Although the bill was inspired by trafficking victims, it could retroactively cover Sears’s case.
With the state legislative session closing at the end of May, Sears is pushing to get the bill out of committee and up for a vote.
"I would just encourage everyone to speak up called our local reps," she says. "And if you are a victim of sexual assault, know that you're not alone. There are many people going through the same thing. Don't give up hope."
If the law passes, she and her attorney Joseph Schreiber plan to refile the suit against her abuser, helping to put her heart at ease knowing he's being held accountable.
For more information on Rhonda’s case, visit justiceforrhonda.net.