Sponsors and supporters of the Child Victims Act hope this is the year for justice
Longtime sponsor out of office, but governor is now calling to extend statutes of limitation for child victims of sexual abuse
Advocates for the Child Victims Act are once again calling on state legislators to reform the statutes of limitation on justice sought by child sex abuse victims.
Outspoken reformers such as Bridie Farrell, an Olympic speedskater and advocate for sexually assaulted children in New York, shared her own story of abuse, which shocked the sports world a few years ago.
“If you’re like most New Yorkers, you probably have happy, positive memories of the Capital Region, Saratoga’s race tracks and the Olympic sights in Lake Placid,” Farrell said. “For me those happy memories are overshadowed by childhood sexual abuse nightmares.”
Farrell was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child by her trainer, Andy Gabel, in 1997 and 1998.
Farrell and others were in Albany earlier this session pleading with state lawmakers to pass legislation that would make it much easier for victims to take legal action against their attackers.
Specifically, the bill would eliminate the statutes of limitation for prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes and filing civil lawsuits for damages against individuals, public institutions, and private institutions related to child sexual abuse.
This bill also creates a one-year window for all childhood abuse victims to file legal actions against their abusers, regardless of when the crime took place.
This second provision has held up the legislation in previous years, as churches and other institutions lobby against the bill, saying it could financially hurt, or even bankrupt their organizations, if they are faced with a sudden onslaught of lawsuits.
Farrell and other supporters of the policy change point out that the Senate majority routinely passes legislation to punish sex offenders, but it is hesitant to pass this particular bill.
“They’re also restricting us, the survivors of childhood sexual assault, from identifying our abusers,” said Farrell. “They are denying us our day in court, and they are protecting the institutions, like the United States Olympic Committee and many others, of the abusers.”
Sponsors and supporters of the Child Victims Act point out that children are often too scared or confused to take legal action against their abusers while they are young.
Under current New York state law, survivors of child sexual abuse have until their 23rd birthday to bring criminal charges against their abusers for most felony sexual abuse crimes. They have the same amount of time to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser.
But victims are often not emotionally ready to bring legal action against their abusers, say the bill sponsors and advocates who have been pushing it in Albany for years.
According to the United State Department of Justice, approximately 1.8 million adolescents in the U.S. have been the victims of sexual assault. An estimated 90 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child, with about a third being family members.
As a result, disclosure of sexual abuse is often delayed, usually until adulthood. Children often avoid telling anyone because they are afraid of a negative reaction or of further abuse or harm at the hands of their abuser.
The bill memo notes that “a horrific pattern of child sexual abuse scandals has shown us that now more than ever we need to change how we view the statutes of limitation in cases of child sexual abuse.”
Senator Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, sponsors the bill (S.809) in the Senate. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, sponsors a slightly different bill (A.5885).
Hoylman, Rosenthal and other advocates of the bill are optimistic because Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled his support for changing the statutes of limitation on childhood sexual abuse this session.
Cuomo’s 2017 State of the State policy book states “the governor seeks to eliminate statutes of limitation for all sexually-related criminal cases when committed against a person who is less than 18 years of age. Further, the governor seeks to extend the statute of limitations for civil claims from three years from the victims 18th birthday to 50 years from the date of the offense. This would give many victims the opportunity to have their day in court.
“For any victim who is still unable to bring a lawsuit, the governor would open a one-year window in which these victims are able to commence their claims.”
Cuomo would also eliminate the need to file a notice of claim with a public entity before being able to bring a lawsuit against that entity. Under New York law, victims are required to file notices of claim before they file a lawsuit against a public entity. These notices are barriers to the proper administration of justice and should not prevent a victim from having access to the courts.
“Child victims are one of the most vulnerable populations of this state,” the governor’s policy book reads. “The outdated laws of New York do not adequately address the needs of these young victims. New York needs to address this injustice in the fight against child sexual abuse.”
This clearly stated mission by the governor to change the laws is a source of optimism for Rosenthal, Hoylman and other supporters of the bill.
The Child Victims Act was championed for many years by former Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, who lost a Democratic primary in 2016. Rosenthal has taken up the fight and says she is optimistic for many reasons.
“All signs are positive around us,” said Rosenthal. “The governor has stated his desire to pass this law. Certainly the senator is working very hard to get it done in the Senate. I’m working very hard in the Assembly, we just introduced a bill a couple weeks ago.”
Hoylman lashed out at his colleagues in the Senate for their failure to amend “antiquated” statute of limitations laws for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
“You’ve heard about the difference between ‘workhorses’ and ‘show ponies,’” Hoylman said. “Well, I gotta’ say, in the Senate, on the issue of child sexual abuse, we’re a bunch of show ponies.”
Last year the Senate passed 49 sex offender bills, and this year, it has already passed six.
“All we do is pass phony ‘show’ bills, on child sexual abuse that will never be enacted into law,” Hoylman said. “Most, if not all, those bills are one-house bills, meaning they will only pass the Senate. The only problem is that it takes two houses to make a law.”
According to Hoylman, 43,000 children in New York state experience some type of sexual abuse each year.
“New York State’s statutes of limitations not only prevent survivors from seeking justice, but allow abusers to remain at-large and in contact with kids,” Hoylman said. “Each year we fail to act more innocent children fall prey to their heinous crimes.”
In October, the Archdiocese of New York announced the creation of a compensation fund for individuals who were sexually abused. But survivors receiving compensation are required to execute a full release of liability and waive their right to sue any party relating to incidents of sexual abuse.
Rosenthal says she unfazed by the potential backlash from powerful institutions opposed to legislation, such as churches. She said she is willing to do whatever it takes for this bill to become law.
“I’m not a-scared of institutions,” said Rosenthal, “and neither should anyone else be.”
While meeting with reporters in Albany earlier this session, childhood sexual assault survivors Kathryn Robb and Steve Jimenez called on Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to help pass the Child Victims Act this year.
Robb said she has had a hard time reaching Flanagan for a conversation about the bill.
“So I say to Senator Flanagan, come talk to me,” said Robb. “I would like to talk to you about the inconsistencies within your argument. The duplicitous due process argument, and the inconsistencies in what you say to the victims here and the survivors here every single year.”
Hoylman has requested a Motion for Committee Consideration which would force an up or down vote on the bill.
“It is deeply disappointing that we must use parliamentary tools to force the Senate Republican-IDC Coalition to allow the Child Victims Act to be discussed in committee,” said Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “The time has come to pass this legislation and provide help for the victims of this terrible crime and I urge the Senate Republican-IDC Coalition to support this good bill.”
Supporters hope the bill will become a priority once the governor and Legislature are finished with the 2017-2018 budget, which is due March 31.
“There are some matters that are matters of principle. Matters that supersede one’s desire to continue to be an elected official,” said Rosenthal. “If you’re here, your time on Earth, your time in the state Legislature, is made worthwhile when you pass laws that actually do justice.”