RICHMOND -- Lisa Elza Little had never told her story in public before, so it wasn't surprising that her voice quavered as she stood before the state Senate's Courts of Justice Committee.
"My stepfather began molesting me when I was 10 years old, and from age 14 to 20 he repeatedly raped me," the 30-year-old Harrisonburg woman said, hushing the murmurs usually heard at crowded legislative hearings.
Little testified Wednesday in favor of a bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon) that would give incest victims and other victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to bring lawsuits against their molesters.
Gartlan said Little's dramatic seven-page appeal last fall to several state officials prompted him to sponsor the bill, which now is being studied by a subcommittee.
Clinical psychologist Christine A. Courtois, who works with a child abuse program at Dominion Hospital in Falls Church, testified that victims of incest and other childhood sexual abuse often are so traumatized that they either don't remember what happened -- they actually develop amnesia about the events -- or can't bring themselves to talk about it.
As a result, Courtois said, many such victims don't seek to file a civil suit against their abusers until many years after the abuse occurred.
Virginia law requires that such civil actions be initiated before the victim is 20 years old. Gartlan's bill, and an identical one in the House, would extend the deadline to age 28.
Gartlan's bill would affect only civil actions; there is no statute of limitation on felony criminal charges. Incest and other sexual crimes against children can carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison.
Sylvia Clute, a Richmond lawyer who won the first civil judgment for an incest victim in Virginia three years ago -- a $3 million jury verdict reduced to $400,000 by the judge -- said eight states have extended the deadline for filing such cases, topped by Rhode Island, which extended the limit to age 40.
Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt) called the proposal "not real good legislation." Emick said he worries that unhappy children could "tell a shrinko whatever they wanted" and there would be "no subjective evidence," making it difficult for a parent to defend himself "10 or 12 years after" an alleged incident.
"Statutes of limitations are not statutes of penalty," said Emick, a lawyer and member of the committee considering Gartlan's measure. "They are designed to bring legal action while recollections are fresh and facts are readily obtainable."
Emick, who is 51, said that when "I look back . . . at things that happened at age 14, my memory is hazy."
Clute countered that legislators needn't fear "a run on the courthouse. There's going to continue to be a pattern of being ashamed, a fear that you're not going to be believed."
Courtois said the mere fact that victims would be allowed to sue their abusers, even if they don't, could help some of her patients recover.
As many as one girl in five encounters sexual abuse before age 18, usually involving a family member, and about one boy in seven has a similar encounter, usually involving someone outside the family, said Courtois, author of "Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy."
Often, Courtois said, survivors of incestuous relationships experience mental problems later in life. They may develop personality or eating disorders; become addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex; try self-mutilation or suicide; or have difficulty maintaining relationships. Some may become sexual abusers themselves.
Lisa Little's story sounded like a textbook case. In 1978, as a college freshman, depressed and suicidal, she told a counselor about her 10 years of abuse. He notified her family physician, who examined her but acceded to her mother's pleas that he not report the stepfather to police. In 1981, Little twice attempted suicide. During the past dozen years, she has been hospitalized several times, taken a series of tranquilizers and antidepressants, had difficulty working full time and been divorced from her husband, who also was a victim of child abuse.
In 1989, her employer changed health insurance carriers, reducing to $1,000 a year the amount she can be reimbursed for counseling. Unable to pay the $3,000 difference, she went to a lawyer to see if her stepfather could be forced to pay for her sessions.
Little said she was "devastated" to learn that the statute of limitation had expired and that a delayed discovery rule applies only to asbestos and medical malpractice cases.
If Gartlan's bill passes, it won't help Little. But she said there are "countless other adult survivors" under age 28 who could benefit.