RALEIGH — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein will be defending the validity of the SAFE Child Act at play in a civil case being heard by the N.C. Supreme Court.
“When my office drafted the SAFE Child Act and the General Assembly unanimously passed it in 2019, we did so with a better understanding of how childhood abuse affects children,” Stein said in a statement issued July 12.
“We now know that it takes people years to process traumatic childhood events, and the SAFE Child Act gives people who were abused as children the ability to hold accountable their abusers. Every victim deserves their day in court,” said Stein. “I will continue to defend the SAFE Child Act and stand up for victims and survivors of child abuse.”
The Sexual Assault Fast reporting and Enforcement Act, known as the SAFE Child Act, was passed unanimously by the General Assembly in October 2019 and was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper the following month. The law strengthened a number of sexual assault and child abuse-related laws and definitions, but it also extended the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases.
In criminal cases under the SAFE Child Act, the statute of limitation was lengthened to ten years for a prosecutor to file criminal misdemeanor child abuse cases. In civil cases, any person who was sexually abused under the age of 18 now has until the age of 28 to bring a civil action.
Importantly, and at the heart of Stein’s brief, is the SAFE Child Act also granted the ability to file a civil case wherein “any civil action for child sexual abuse otherwise time-barred” could be revived. That revival period or “look back” window of time was limited to the two-year period from “January 1, 2020, until December 31, 2021.”
The civil case at question involved former Gaston County teacher Gary Scott Goins, however, there are numerous cases that could be impacted by how the N.C. Supreme Court rules, including the civil case against New Hanover County Public Schools in the case of Michael Kelly, a former teacher convicted of nearly six sex-crime charges involving students, and a case involving the Daniel Boone Council of the Boy Scouts.
Goins had been a teacher and wrestling coach at East Gaston High School when he was arrested in June of 2013 on 20 sex crime charges related to allegations he had sexually abused three of his former wrestlers between the years of 1998 through 2004.
The plaintiffs in Goins civil case made use of the SAFE Child Act and attorneys for Gaston County Public School Board responded by filing a motion to have the Act tossed from the suit, claiming the law was facially unconstitutional.
The majority of a three-judge panel agreed in December of 2021, ruling two to one that “Defendant Gaston Board has met its considerable burden of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that Section 4.2(b) of S.L. 2019-245 is facially unconstitutional.”
Stein’s brief defending the SAFE Child Act argues the General Assembly has the power to revive civil tort claims that would otherwise be barred by state statutes and that the state constitution doesn’t prohibit such a revival.
Additionally, Stein argues the state supreme court should reverse the three-judge panel’s decision, writing that the “revival provision did not make it easier for plaintiffs to prove their claims. It effected no change in the substantive law. Rather, it provided a narrow, procedural remedy to victims that allowed them the opportunity to seek civil justice.”
Goins was found guilty in 2014 on 17 charges that included include statutory rape, indecent liberties with a child, sex act with a student by teacher and crimes against nature. He was sentenced to a minimum of 34 years and ten months and a maximum of over 43 years in prison. Given his age at incarceration, Goins will be in his 80s when he becomes eligible for release.
Three former students had come forward accusing Goins of sexually assaulting them. During trial testimony, all three recounted stories of being assaulted or molested while on wrestling trips for the high school, but also at Goins’ apartment and even in their own homes.
In October 2021, Goins’ three victims filed a civil suit in Gaston County Superior Court accusing Goins of assault and battery, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, constructive fraud, and false imprisonment. The lawsuit claims the three victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
According to the civil suit, plaintiffs allege the Gaston County school board was negligent in its hiring practices and failed to intervene.
“Defendant board failed to intervene when there was clear and convincing evidence of the inappropriate relationship between defendant Goins and young boys who participated in the wrestling programs at East Gaston High School,” according to the lawsuit.
A copy of Stein’s brief is available here.
An overview of the SAFE Child Act is available here.