The University of Georgia School of Law is launching the first legal clinic in the nation to assist victims of child sexual abuse, thanks to a gift from an alumnus, Atlanta plaintiffs lawyer Marlan Wilbanks.
Wilbanks declined to say how much he is donating, but he said it’s a “substantial gift” that will be ongoing. He also plans to be personally involved in the clinic. “This is going to be a lifelong commitment for me,” he said.
The clinic, called the Wilbanks Center for Child Sexual Assault and Exploitation Survivors, will both assist adult survivors of child sexual abuse in filing civil suits and help children to gain protection from their abusers, he said.
Wilbanks is a longtime advocate for preventing child sexual abuse and helping survivors because his mother is a survivor of sexual abuse by her father. He said she was able to disclose her abuse only when she was well into adulthood, in her late 40s, which is common for many survivors.
“She has gone from being a victim to being an unbelievable advocate,” Wilbanks said. “She is my hero, and I want to continue her legacy.”
His mother, Marilyn Motz, helped to start the Habersham County chapter of Prevent Child Abuse and Wilbanks is on the board of an Atlanta advocacy group, VOICE Today.
Both pushed for new Georgia legislation that went into effect July 1 extending the statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse to file civil suits—an impetus for the new clinic, which will open in the spring semester.
Wilbanks said the clinic will also help children gain injunctive relief—for instance, by helping victims secure protective orders to get abusers out of their home.
“This is not just helping people bring lawsuits for dollars,” Wilbanks said. “I want to create a system that creates safety for people—and make sure predators get prosecuted.”
The dean of UGA’s law school, Peter “Bo” Rutledge, said the new law, HB 17, known as the Hidden Predators Act, makes it particularly appropriate for a public law school to step in. “The General Assembly wants to open the courthouse doors to these type of claims,” he said.
The new legislation allows victims to file civil claims at a much older age. Before, they only had until they turned 23. “The average median age of victims for when they are psychologically able to deal with what happened to them, like my mother, is over 40 years old,” Wilbanks said.
HB 17 initially eliminates the statute of limitations until July 1, 2017, creating an open window in which victims may file claims. After that it allows two years from when “the plaintiff knew or had reason to know of such abuse and that such abuse resulted in injury to the plaintiff as established by competent medical or psychological evidence.”
Wilbanks’ initial gift, Rutledge said, will help fund a clinic director’s salary and fellowships, which could be summer jobs for law students or term-time jobs for law graduates.
The law school is conducting a search for a clinic director. Rutledge said the initial goal is to have six to eight students working in the clinic per term.
The clinic will add to the law school’s experiential learning offerings, he said, giving students the chance to serve as advocates for Georgians without adequate legal resources.
Wilbanks said it’s insufficient to rely on police, government prosecutors and the state child protective agency to protect children from sexual abuse. “Calling the cops does not immediately get the father or other family member out of the house. You do not get the injunctive relief,” he said, and intervention from the Division of Family and Child Services may not be effective.
“Nobody is advocating for the child,” Wilbanks said, adding that abuse victims often have very little money to hire lawyers. “Private attorneys need to get involved.”
Besides offering legal services, the clinic could serve as a liaison with the private bar, he said.
A child being abused in the home is often afraid to say anything, Wilbanks added. For this reason he envisions the UGA legal clinic partnering with medical providers and social services groups that assist sexual abuse victims.
“We want to connect the victims to their legal rights and identify their sexual predators,” he said. “They are falling through the safety net.”
The other impetus for Wilbanks’ gift was a big win in a whistleblower case. Wilbanks and other lawyers brought a Medicare fraud case against a dialysis chain, Da Vita Healthcare Partners, which resulted in a $495 million settlement earlier this year, including $45 million for legal fees and costs.
Another plaintiffs lawyer on the DaVita case, UGA Law graduate Stacey Godfrey Evans, also used some of her fee to make a big gift to the law school. Evans donated $500,000 in July to fund a scholarship for law students who, like herself, are first-generation college graduates.