By Jessica pride
Published on
June 10, 2020
Last Updated
April 5, 2024

Every Survivor’s Story Makes a Difference

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Christy Heiskala is a Survivor Advocate for The Pride Law Firm. After her experience with the civil litigation process, she decided to dedicate her life to helping victims and their families seeking civil justice. Heiskala empathizes with survivors as someone who has been through the process both as a plaintiff and a mother to a survivor.

In 2007, my daughter was sexually abused by her third-grade teacher. It happened in the classroom just minutes after the bell rang at the end of the day. As a survivor myself, I had taught her early on to speak up if anyone touched her inappropriately. When it happened, she did exactly what I taught her. She spoke up immediately, even though kids often do not tell at all. At the time, the assistant superintendent of the school district and the deputy district attorney (DDA) both told us that there were no previous complaints against the teacher.

The forensic interview specialist, trained in questioning children who are victims of abuse, found my daughter totally credible. However, the DDA chose not to press criminal charges because there was no evidence and called it a “he said/she said” case. I could not believe a child molester would be free to abuse more children.

Nine months later, another student came forward and accused the same teacher of sexual misconduct. The DDA finally pressed criminal charges against the teacher. That student had been abused prior to my daughter but had not told anyone at the time. If that student had not come forward to corroborate the teacher’s sexual misconduct, he might still be teaching and abusing children.

I am not sure if they understood that every victim could add to the amount of time the teacher could potentially spend in prison.

Since we had already reported the teacher, that student and her family were spared the crushing experience we endured. We did not know this family and did not meet until the day the teacher was sentenced to prison, yet we could not have received justice without each other. Each story made a difference in the outcome.

After our story was covered by the news, a third victim came forward. If our story had not been featured in the news, that victim might have never been brave enough to tell her story. We were told there were many other potential victims, but those families refused to speak up. I am not sure if they understood that every victim could add to the amount of time the teacher could potentially spend in prison.

The teacher pled guilty to abusing three students. At his sentencing, the victim’s families read their victim impact statements. Victim impact statements are when the victims of a crime, including the families, get to address the person who committed the crime in court during the sentencing and subsequent parole hearings.

I read an impact statement written by my daughter and one I wrote myself. Another mother read her statement. The last person to speak was an older teenager who read a statement on behalf of her little sister. The older teen mentioned the teacher had abused her too when she was in the second grade. I was stunned.

When the hearing was over, I found her in the hallway and asked what year she was in his class. She was in his first year of teaching. My daughter was in his seventh year of teaching. At that moment, I knew there had to be more to the story and realized the school had failed my daughter and all the other children.

I found a civil attorney who specialized in sexual abuse cases.

The attorney subpoenaed the teacher’s personnel records and found numerous complaints throughout the seven years he was employed at that school. I guess the assistant superintendent and the DDA must not have thought those complaints mattered but the civil attorney knew they proved negligence. I told the other parents and together, we filed a civil lawsuit against the school district and the teacher.

Each victim’s story was like a step on a ladder, leading us out of a sinkhole that opened up and sucked us down.

During the trial, one piece of evidence was from a mother who had spoken up years prior to the abuse of my daughter. She had reported the teacher for having her daughter sit on his lap. She reported a second incident when the teacher tugged on her daughter’s underwear. Each time she reported to the principal, he dismissed the behavior as “harmless and well-intended.” The mother was so upset at the lack of discipline and feared more children would be harmed, she sent an email documenting her complaint.

I am eternally grateful to that mother because I believe she helped us prove our case. Her daughter’s story made a difference even though it was years later than it should have been.

We won our civil lawsuit and I believe it was because of each individual along the way who spoke up. None of us could have done it without the other. Each victim’s story was like a step on a ladder, leading us out of a sinkhole that opened up and sucked us down the day our kids disclosed what happened to them. One step at a time, we climbed, pulling each other up along the way. We made it out of the darkness, justice was served, and we moved on with our lives.

In January 2020, AB 218 went into effect to protect survivors of child sexual abuse. AB 218 opens a three-year “lookback window” for previously time-barred claims. This enables adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in California, who previously had an expired statute, to file claims in the next three years regardless of their current age. Studies show that it takes survivors years to come forward, oftentimes later in their adult life. All survivors now have a chance to seek justice. For cases that occurred after January 1, 2020, AB 218 also increases the time limit for an individual to bring a civil lawsuit for damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual assault. Survivors can file to the later of 40-years-old, or five years from the date of discovery for related damages.

The date of the discovery is when the person discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of 18 was caused by the childhood sexual assault.

If you have questions about reporting sexual assault or think you or a loved one was potentially abused, please call The Pride Law Firm for a free, strictly private legal consultation at ​619-516-8166.

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