Sammamish woman helps change law for victims of abuse

August 15, 2013

By Ari Cetron

New: August 15, 12:14 p.m.

Gail Harsh was giving herself one chance. One chance to honor a dead daughter who’d endured years of sexual abuse. One chance to open herself to rooms full of strangers and tell her heartbreaking story. One chance to change state law to make it easier for victims to seek justice.

Dozens gathered at Gail Harsh’s Sammamish home to release ballons to honor victims of child sex abuse, and celebrate a change in the law. Photo by Kayti Heuser

Dozens gathered at Gail Harsh’s Sammamish home to release ballons to honor victims of child sex abuse, and celebrate a change in the law. Photo by Kayti Heuser

She did it.

“I can do this once. I can pour my heart into it one time,” said Harsh, a Sammamish resident. “It took a lot, emotionally, to tell about our daughter.”

Along with a phalanx of others from around the state, Harsh lobbied to change the statute of limitations for reporting and prosecuting cases of child rape.

After a bit of prodding from state Sen. Andy Hill (R-45), Harsh testified before both the House and Senate about the impact child rape had on her and her family. While lawmakers are presented with mountains of data, hearing the emotional side can be the sort of thing that helps a bill pass, Hill said.

“One of the most powerful ways to get support for a bill is to have someone come and tell their personal stories about it,” he said.


Amy’s story

A family member first abused Harsh’s daughter, Amy, when Amy was 4. Then another family member abused her between the ages of 4 and 8. Finally, a teacher assaulted the girl at age 10, Gail said.

The incidents took place in the 1980s in Spokane. One of the three men is now dead. None were prosecuted.

The family moved to Sammamish in 1988. At the time, neither Gail, her husband, Tom, or Amy’s brother and sister had any idea.

Jenny Graham, of Spokane, (left) and Gail Harsh, of Sammamish, were among dozens of citizens from across the state fighting for a change to the statute of limitation on child sexual abuse. Photo by Kayti Heuser

Jenny Graham, of Spokane, (left) and Gail Harsh, of Sammamish, were among dozens of citizens from across the state fighting for a change to the statute of limitation on child sexual abuse. Photo by Kayti Heuser

“We did not know this happened, and we were a close family,” Harsh said.

That changed July 24, 1992 (Harsh has detailed journals with dates). Amy was at a youth conference in Oregon. She was flipping through a magazine and saw a photo of a group of adults who were abused as children when she started having flashbacks, Harsh said.

Harsh was not there, but another adult told her Amy started shaking violently. “She’s repeating over and over, ‘Something happened to me at (school). Something happened to me at (school),’” Harsh said.

Amy was taken home. She started journaling and working with a therapist. She remembered the abuse in reverse order, which Harsh said is fairly common.

“She gave a play-by-play about what this teacher had done to her,” Tom Harsh said.

In retrospect, Gail Harsh said, she started to understand some of Amy’s behaviors from the time it was happening. Amy would jog in place before a soccer practice, hoping that would stop her 9-year-old body from getting pregnant. Amy came home from school one day and asked to transfer to a different school – and wanted to start the next day.

The fall after the revelations, Amy went back to school and became deeply involved, earning varsity letters, serving as president of the honor society and natural helpers.

Then on July 2, 1993, she died of complications from mononucleosis. She was 15.

“For almost one full year, she was going through post-traumatic stress,” Gail Harsh said. “She just carried on like an amazing trooper.”

Naturally, the family turned to police. They started working with a detective in Spokane, but thought he was dragging his feet in the investigation. Then they ran up against the problems in state law. Washington law regarding sex offenders had been a mish-mash of times and circumstances.

Generally, if someone is under 14 when they were abused, they would need to report the crime within a year. For example, since a 4-year old Amy didn’t report the crime when she was 5, the statute of limitations had run up – on that and all the other incidents.

“They closed the case because the statue of limitations had passed,” Gail Harsh said.


The aftermath

Gail ended up overwhelmed as the effect of the abuse rippled outward.

“When she died, our whole world stopped,” she said. “Your child is dead. Your heart is broken.”

Doctors prescribed drugs to help Gail take the edge off her grief. They worked a bit too well and Gail was addicted to them. They also stopped her from processing her grief.

“I wasn’t dealing with anything on a deep level,” she said. “I lost 11 years to prescription drugs.”

After some counseling, and help from her church group at Sammamish Presbyterian Church, Gail began dealing with her grief.

She started talking, not on some kind of formal lecture circuit, but simply sharing her story with community groups or individuals.

Her work there caught the attention of Hill, the state senator, who asked her to come to Olympia and testify.

A group of citizens, led by Jenny Graham of Spokane, had been lobbying for a change to the statute of limitations. If passed, it would mean that a person abused before age 18 would have until age 30 to report the crime.

When Harsh joined the group, she quickly became part of the lobbying effort. She contacted friends around the state and encouraged them to call their legislators in support of the bill.

Hill said such grassroots efforts can be especially effective, particularly when citizens are doing the work instead of professional lobbyists.

The idea for the bill had been kicking around Olympia. In 2012, it passed the House unanimously before getting stuck in the Senate. The Senate committee was waiting for a report on the idea from the state’s Sex Offender Policy Board.

The board’s report was not filed until October 2012, months after the Legislature had adjourned.

In the report, the board recommended setting the limitation at age 28 and retaining a tight deadline for reporting the incident.

There are reasons to keep the statute of limitation in place, the report argues. As time goes on, evidence will become less reliable and the chances of a successful prosecution will diminish. Therefore, it may be more important to spend limited resources on prosecuting more recent crimes.

Hill said that while that may be a valid point, the old standard of expecting a 4-year-old to report such crimes within a year didn’t work.

“From a common sense point of view, the one year didn’t make sense,” Hill said.

Harsh got involved as the 2013 legislative session began. Once again, the bill sailed through the House unanimously. State Rep. Jay Rodne (R-5) was a co-sponsor of the House version and was pleased to see it pass.

“I think it was about providing justice and access to justice for very heinous crimes,” Rodne said.

As the bill went to the Senate, this time it sailed through the upper chamber, also passing unanimously.

Rodne noted that a non-controversial bill, such as renaming part of a state highway, might pass both the House and Senate unanimously. But a bill like this one, with some substantive changes to state law, rarely goes through without a single no vote.

“It is rare,” he said.



The new law went into effect July 28. The next day, Harsh had nearly 50 people from around the state come to her house to celebrate.

They released colorful balloons — the sort children would enjoy — into the air from her dock on Lake Sammamish.

“I believe Amy is really pleased,” Gail Harsh said. “Her whole thing is to protect children.”


The new law

As of July 28, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse has changed.

Under the new standards, if the victim of rape, child molestation, indecent liberties, incest or sexual exploitation of a minor was under 18 when the crime was committed, the crime may be prosecuted until the victim’s 30th birthday.

If the victim is over than 18, rape may be prosecuted with 10 years, if the crime was reported within one year. If the offense was not reported within one year, then it may be prosecuted within three years of the act.

All other sexual offenses may be prosecuted within three years from the act.


Who to call

People who have been the victims of sexual abuse, even if it took place years ago, should call 911, said Sammamish Police Chief Nate Elledge. The operators will be able to connect callers to the appropriate channels. The King County Sherriff’s Office Special Assault unit would likely handle the case, Elledge said. The amount of time that has passed will not diminish police interest.

“We would still consider that a priority,” Elledge said.

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