By now, the contours of Teresa Helm’s account have become familiar. She was 22 when she met the man that she now knows was Jeffrey Epstein.
She came to Mr. Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion for what she believed to be an interview with a wealthy client for a job as his traveling masseuse, she said. There was talk of lavish parties, exotic travel and educational opportunities.
With no one else in the room, Ms. Helm said, the man, whom she knew only as Jeffrey, asked for a foot rub. Once she began, she said, he moved his foot into her “intimate parts.” When she tried to leave, he grabbed and sexually assaulted her.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she recalled him saying as she left.
Ms. Helm returned home to California, deeply disturbed by the experience. Embarrassed and scared, she did not call the police. and she did her best to banish the episode from her memory. It was only 17 years later, when she heard Mr. Epstein’s name while listening to a YouTube channel shortly after his arrest in July, that she began to realize who had assaulted her in 2002.
“I can’t even describe, it was beyond my heart sinking,” said Ms. Helm, now a 39-year-old mother of two living in Oakwood, Ohio. “It was something like a force. I was literally overtaken by horror.”
Ms. Helm is one of five women who sued Mr. Epstein’s estate in Federal District Court in Manhattan last week, accusing him of rape, battery and false imprisonment and seeking unspecified damages.
But the lawsuits have another purpose: to build momentum for changing the statute of limitations in New York and elsewhere for civil claims stemming from sex crimes, which are under growing scrutiny across the United States.
According to Child U.S.A., a nonprofit group that works to expand statutes of limitations, nearly two dozen states have changed their laws related such rules this year. Many of the changes involved claims arising from allegations of childhood sexual abuse.
In New York State, the Child Victims Act expanded the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors. For those abused as adults, the window is often shorter.
Legislators in New York now want to create a one-year window that would allow adults to revive old sex-crime accusations and bring them to court, mirroring a mechanism in the state’s child victims law. The proposed Adult Survivors Act, which was introduced in October and is supported by the Democratic majority leader of the State Senate, will be debated in next year’s legislative session.
New York State also recently changed the statute of limitations for some types of rape, expanding it to up to 20 years for both civil and criminal cases.
David Boies, the lawyer representing the five women who sued Mr. Epstein’s estate, said that the nature of sexual assault — and the shame it can engender — justified giving victims more time to bring their claims.
“These are people who are so traumatized, they bury it,” he said. “To apply a quote ‘normal’ statute of limitations to that sort of conduct doesn’t make any sense.”
A lawyer for Mr. Epstein’s estate, Bennet Moskowitz, did not respond to a request for comment. The estate notified the court last week that it was considering the creation of a financial program to resolve claims filed by women who say they were abused by Mr. Epstein.
Civil liberties lawyers argue that extending the statute of limitations for civil or criminal cases can put defendants at a great disadvantage: evidence can be lost or deteriorate, and memories can fade.
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement this year that the authorities needed to strike a balance between supporting “survivors while maintaining longstanding legal safeguards.”
“Statutes of limitations exist for an important reason,” Ms. Lieberman said. “As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult for the accused to prepare a meaningful defense while evidence gets stale, witnesses disappear, and records become lost.”
The expansion of such statutes in New York has prompted legal challenges: Last week, a Catholic diocese on Long Island argued in a court filing in State Supreme Court that the Child Victims Act violated the constitutional guarantee of due process.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, the lead sponsor of the Child Victims Act, said that he was gathering support for the Adult Survivors Act. That law, he said, would serve multiple purposes, including identifying serial perpetrators and giving victims a chance to tell their stories publicly.
“That’s largely what survivors are seeking,” Mr. Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, said. “It tells the public you don’t have to take it anymore.”
The five women who sued Mr. Epstein’s estate last week include two sisters, Maria and Annie Farmer, who say that he abused them in the 1990s and have been outspoken about his behavior.
Annie Farmer said that she was 16 when Mr. Epstein brought her to his New Mexico ranch, where he groped and harassed her, including crawling into bed with her and pressing his genitals against her. Maria Farmer said that he assaulted her in Ohio on a separate occasion.
The sisters said that the statute of limitations in some states was a barrier that prevented abuse victims from achieving justice. They cited a fear of reprisal from abusers, particularly when they were powerful men like Mr. Epstein.
“It can take years or even decades for victims of sexual traumas to understand and process what has happened,” said Annie Farmer, now 40 and working as a psychologist. “In my case and in many cases where perpetrators hold positions of power, there is also significant and often warranted fear of retribution that can make the risks of a lawsuit feel too great.”
Maria Farmer and the other three women who sued Mr. Epstein’s estate were adults when, they say, the abuse occurred. One, Juliette Bryant, was 20 and an aspiring model when Mr. Epstein flew her from her home in South Africa to the Virgin Islands, where he had a home. Once she was there, according to her lawsuit, he forced her into “extreme and repeated sexual abuse,” including multiple rapes.
Like Ms. Helm, Ms. Bryant said that it took 17 years from when the first incident occurred for her to come forward, and that she had only done so at the urging of two former boyfriends. She said that she was “terrified of Jeffrey Epstein and his machine.”
“The current laws do not recognize the trajectory of trauma and abuse,” said Ms. Bryant, now 37 and a businesswoman in Cape Town. “They need to change.”
Mr. Boies said he intended to test a clause in New York State law that allowed plaintiffs to file lawsuits within a year of the termination of a criminal case against a defendant. In Mr. Epstein’s case, the clock on such claims began on Aug. 29, when federal prosecutors dismissed a sex-trafficking indictment against him after his suicide at the Manhattan Correctional Center.
For victims like Ms. Helm and her fellow plaintiffs, even the 20 years promised under the new state law seems too short.
“I can tell you what golden looks like: for the statute of limitations to be removed altogether,” she said. “I don’t understand the intention of setting a time limit. It’s essentially an expiration date, to the eyes of everyone. It’s like, ‘Oops: It’s not a thing anymore. It’s not a crime.’”