Sexual assault and abuse are crimes in every state. They are never the victim’s fault and they are never OK. Fernandez Law has more than 30 years’ experience representing survivors of sexual crimes in Missouri. Our staff of male and female experts provides a safe, comfortable environment for you to tell your story and review your legal options. Besides criminal prosecution, you may have the right to file a civil suit against your abuser or against a third party that failed in its duty to protect you.
Survivors of sexual assault often hesitate to seek justice. They may feel powerless. They might believe it’s been too long since the attack. They often don’t want to go through the emotional trauma of retelling the event. They may even wonder if they were partly to blame.
You have the right to come forward - and you don’t have to do it alone. Partner Gonzalo Fernandez is a former prosecutor who worked in both the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit and the Special Victims Unit of the Circuit Attorney’s Office in the City of St. Louis prosecuting some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. Gonzalo knows how to navigate the maze of law enforcement, social workers, mental health professionals and counselors involved in a sexual assault case. He guides survivors through this emotionally charged experience to the best possible outcome.
When you come forward, you claim power over your story - and you may help prevent your abuser from hurting someone again. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, get in touch with one of our expert attorneys.
Sexual Assault Under Missouri Law
Under state and federal law, sexual assault can be grounds for both criminal and civil action.
Criminal charges are filed by the state on the basis of a police investigation. In these investigations, sex crime detectives will typically interview both the victim and the accused. Police gather evidence and bring the case to the office of the prosecuting attorney, who will decide whether the state will file charges.
Sexual assault can be a difficult crime to prosecute. There are rarely witnesses, and often little to no physical evidence. Many cases hinge on whether a victim consented to the contact. If the victim was drugged or intoxicated there may be a question of whether consent was even possible.
Should the defendant be found guilty in a criminal court, these cases can carry significant prison time. Upon release from prison, the defendant will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life.
Civil suits are filed by the survivor against either their attacker or against a third party that failed to protect them. A civil case for sexual assault is entirely separate and apart from the criminal case. Even if the prosecutor chooses not to file charges, or if the defendant is found not guilty in criminal court, the survivor can still bring a civil suit.
Should the plaintiff win, the defendant could be required to pay monetary damages. A big hurdle in many of these cases is finding assets or insurance to cover the damages. No insurance company will cover intentional criminal acts, so any judgment you receive will have to be paid out of the defendant’s own pocket. That means you could win a $100 million settlement and end up with only an IOU. A symbolic victory at best.
Often, the only way to get monetary compensation for a sexual assault is to bring a civil suit against an organization that failed to prevent the attack. For example, we have helped sue:
- Spas that failed to do an adequate background check and hired a massage therapist with a history of sexual abuse;
- Prisons where inmates were sexually assaulted by guards;
- A licensed therapist who abused his position of trust and power and took advantage of patients in a vulnerable situation.; and
- Landlords who despite repeated break ins and warnings failed to take adequate security measures to keep a rapist off the property.
Sexual Assault Legal Terminology: What It All Means
Many people associate sexual contact with rape, but it actually covers a wide variety of unwanted acts, such as forced touching, exposing one’s genitals or exposing minors to sexually explicit material.
Every state has civil and criminal statutes that specifically define terms like “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” “sexual contact” and “sexual misconduct.” Unfortunately, these definitions can from state to state. The definition may also change based on the age of the victim and whether you are talking about a criminal or civil case.
All sex crimes involve forcing sexual contact on a person who doesn’t explicitly consent or who is unable to consent.
Consent in Missouri
“Consent” means agreeing to sexual contact, and it must be freely given before contact takes place. It’s a crime to have sexual contact with a person who can’t give consent because of their age, intoxication, or physical or mental incapacitation. It’s also a crime to threaten or force someone into giving consent.
Giving someone a mind-altering substance like drugs or alcohol without their permission, then having sex with them while they are unconscious, impaired or otherwise unable to say no, is sexual assault.
A person who is unconscious or highly intoxicated is incapable of giving consent. Children and people with a reduced mental capacity are also unable to give consent.
If you were forced or threatened into sexual contact against your will or while you were incapacitated, you are the victim of a crime. After reporting the crime to law enforcement, you should contact an attorney to help you bring the responsible parties to justice.
In Missouri, “sexual assault” includes rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, and sexual misconduct.
Sexual assault often involves the use or threat of force. This means someone who forces their victim to comply with sexual contact commits sexual assault. Someone who threatens their victim to scare them into complying also commits sexual assault.
“Sexual abuse” is a specific criminal act. The severity of the charge under Missouri law varies based on the nature of the contact and the age or mental capacity of the victim.
Sexual abuse is often marked by a perceived power imbalance between the victim and their abuser. Abusers may be trusted mentors or caregivers such as counselors, coaches or family friends. The victim sees them as a person with authority, which makes it difficult to say no or report the abuse.
Survivors of sexual abuse often struggle with feelings of guilt or fear that someone they liked and trusted will get in trouble. It is important to remember that your abuser was the person who broke that trust - not you.
Sexual contact with minors
Under Missouri state law, any sexual contact with a child younger than 14 is always a criminal act. This includes remote contact that does not involve physical touching. Sending children pornographic images or obscene messages via text, email or social media is also a crime.
When a minor is between the ages of 14 and 16, sexual contact with anyone more than four years older is considered sexual abuse or child molestation under criminal statutes.
For the purposes of civil suits, “childhood sexual abuse” is defined as any sexual contact that qualifies as a crime under criminal law between a minor younger than 18 and an adult.
What to Do If You've Been Sexually Assaulted
Surviving a sexual assault is traumatic. Your first reaction might be to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen, or try to forget it. Unfortunately, that response won’t help you and it won’t bring your attacker to justice.
Go the hospital
If you have been raped, sodomized or physically abused, get to a hospital and be truthful about what happened.
Hospital personnel are trained in how to get you the immediate help you need. Evidence they collect after the attack can be crucial to holding the attacker accountable in court.
If you believe you were drugged, tell hospital staff as soon as possible. Traces of the drug might still be recoverable in your system. This could be important evidence of the assault.
Go to the police
Report the crime to law enforcement in the city where the assault took place as soon as possible.
Under Missouri law, hospital staff are required to report sexual assaults to the police. If you went to the hospital first - and you should - they will report the crime for you.
Contact an attorney
Sometimes, after investigating, police will decline to make an arrest or prosecutors will decline to bring charges. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t believe you. What it means is they don’t think there is enough evidence for a conviction.
You can still hold your attacker accountable. You can bring a civil action even if no criminal charges are filed.
You might also have a case against a third party that failed to protect you. An attorney can help you identify a property owner who didn’t take adequate security measures or an organization whose negligence created the opportunity for the assault.
What if I waited?
It’s very common for survivors of sexual assault to feel conflicted and to delay going to the hospital or filing a report.
If some time has passed since the assault and you did not immediately report it, reach out to a lawyer experienced with sexual assault cases. We can help you outline the next steps you can take.
Proving sexual assault
In a criminal case, the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This makes sex crimes difficult to prosecute when there are no witnesses or physical evidence. The entire case comes down to which side the judge or jury believes is more credible.
Civil cases are proved by “a preponderance of the evidence.” The plaintiff does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened; they need only show it was more likely than not.
A defendant found guilty in criminal court is very unlikely to win a civil case. However, even if the criminal case was ruled in the defendant’s favor, the plaintiff could still win a civil suit.
What to Do If You Suspect a Child is Being Abused
Fernandez Law is committed to protecting children. If you believe your child has been abused, contact law enforcement and an attorney. By taking both criminal and civil action, you will do everything in your power to keep the abuser from hurting more children.
Abusers often “groom” children, introducing them slowly to increasingly sexual behaviors. Because of this, signs of abuse may appear gradually. Parents, guardians and other adults in a child’s life should be alert for red flags that indicate a child might be suffering abuse. Symptoms include:
- Withdrawal from friends and usual activities
- Inappropriate sexual behaviors such as touching other children or playing out sexual scenarios
- Physical signs of genital trauma
- Unexpected knowledge of sexual behavior inappropriate to the child’s age (especially if they are reluctant to explain where they learned it)
- Sudden reluctance to spend time alone with a specific individual
- Behavior regression such as bedwetting and thumb-sucking
- Reluctance to undress
- Signs of depression, such as changes in mood, appetite and sleep habits
- Inappropriate interest in sex or sexually explicit material
As difficult as it is, if you suspect a child in your life has been abused - or if they report the abuse to you - remain calm. The child is trusting you to act on their behalf, and panic is not helpful.
If you believe a child has been sexually abused:
- Immediately report the abuse to law enforcement.
- Seek medical care for the child.
- Do not pepper the child with a lot of questions. You could accidentally scare them, make them feel they’ve done something wrong or suggest ideas to them that could later taint evidence.
Instead, involve your local child advocacy center or a licensed therapist trained to investigate child sexual abuse. These professionals know how to interview children to get the necessary facts without further traumatizing the child.
- Contact an attorney. In addition to criminal charges, Missouri law allows the abuser to be held liable in a civil action. An experienced attorney can also help you identify any third party - like a school, business, or youth organization - that failed to take adequate steps to protect your child.
- Whatever the outcome of the case, get your child appropriate mental health treatment to process the trauma. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at higher risk of future dangerous behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders and abusing others. Addressing the trauma with a licensed therapist as soon as possible helps lessen the impact so the child can grow up to have a healthy, happy life.
Missouri Statute of Limitations for Sex Crimes
The statute of limitations varies based on the charge, the age of the victim and whether the action is criminal or civil. Your attorney is the best person to tell you whether your particular case still falls within the window of the statute of limitations.
Statutes of limitations for criminal charges
For most sexual offenses involving a child, Missouri has no statute of limitations to bring criminal charges. There is also no time limit on filing charges for the most serious sex crimes, regardless of the victim’s age. These include rape, sodomy or any Class A felony.
Other felony charges must be filed within three years of the incident. Misdemeanor charges must be filed within one year.
Statutes of limitations for civil charges
If the victim was an adult at the time of the assault, they have two years to file suit against their assailant for assault. They have five years to file a negligence action against a third party that neglected to prevent the assault.
If the victim was a minor at the time of the assault, they have the same time limits as an adult to bring a civil action. However, rather than being calculated from the date of the assault, the clock on the statute of limitations doesn’t start ticking until the victim’s 21st birthday.
In some cases, a victim might repress memories of sexual assault. These survivors may not even realize they were sexually abused until something triggers the memory later in life.
Repressed memories are an area of hot debate in Missouri courts. If your case involves a memory that only recently surfaced, talk to an attorney immediately.
Resources for Survivors of Sexual Assault
Our goal at Fernandez Law is to make survivors of sexual assault and abuse whole again. Our attorneys will make you feel safe, comfortable and protected as we bring perpetrators to justice.
You are not alone. Contact us today to review your legal options and take back control of your story.
Here are some additional resources to help survivors recover.
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) – The nation’s largest support and advocacy group for victims of sexual violence and the organization behind the National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800-656-HOPE
- NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center) – Connects victims of sexual violence and their families with local resources.
- 1in6 – Support and resources for male survivors of sexual assault and abuse
My experience thus far working with Gonzalo Fernandez has been fantastic!!!! Throughout the entire process to date he has kept me up-to-date and taken more time than I would have expected to explain the process to me in terms someone who is not an attorney can understand fully. I am so thankful to him for his work and support throughout and would recommend him and the firm to anyone!!!!