Child abuse victims and their advocates in the Legislature are urging lawmakers to continue to meet in remote sessions to extend the lookback window of the Child Victims Act (CVA) for another year, allowing more time for victims to file legal actions.
The challenges presented by the coronavirus outbreak made it increasingly difficult to file claims and ultimately turned the one-year window to seven months. As New York courts suspended non-essential cases, which include CVA proceedings, advocates and some lawmakers believe extending the window would ensure the rights of survivors.
Although New York health officials and the Governor’s Office are focused on the more than 130,000 positive COVID-19 cases, the Legislature is still technically in session. The Legislature is officially on break until April 20, but when they return, lawmakers are supposed to convene through June 2.
The primary sponsors of the CVA bill, and its extension S.7082/A.9036 – Senator Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, respectively – are asking their fellow lawmakers to return to session digitally after the holiday break to pass an extension on the lookback window that would allow victims to file legal claims against their abusers and their employers until August 14, 2021.
Last year the legislature passed the CVA (S.2240/A.2683), extending the statute of limitations age for childhood sexual abuse to 28-years-old for criminal cases and 55-years-old for civil cases. A critical component of the bill was opening the lookback window in August, allowing survivors of any age one year to report and file a civil case against their abuser or any liable institution no matter when the abuse took place.
However, due to the spread of COVID-19 in New York, the Office of Court Administration has closed all courts to non-essential cases, which includes all CVA proceedings.
“The 12-month period we promised has been cut by nearly 50 percent,” Holyman said. “That is completely unfair to survivors who’ve already been subject to decades of unfair treatment from our legal system through the various attenuated statutes of limitation.”
Mary Ellen O’Loughlin, a child abuse survior and advocate for the CVA, believes that a one-year window was not enough time for victims of abuse to learn about the law, come to terms with their abuse and publically confront their abuser, who are often time family members.
“I am here to give a voice to those who can’t find theirs and don’t have a voice,” O’Loughlin said.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAIIN), 93 percent of child sexaul abuse cases are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
Since the lookback window opened in August, 1,800 survivors have come forward and pressed civil charges, with many others in the process of preparing to file before courts closed.
Besides the mental challenges of opening up abuse under the microscope of the justice system, Brian Toale, a survivor and CVA advocate, acknowledged other roadblocks that victims have been facing. This includes finding attorneys to take on low income clients, lack of public awareness about the bill, and combating the voluntary bankruptcy of the institutions being sued.
The Boy Scouts of America and several Roman Catholic dioceses across the state have voluntarily filed a chapter 11 bankruptcy, as increasing lawsuits grow against them. This is a common tactic made by institutions to ease financial pressure, but could ultimately impact compensation victims are trying to receive.
“There’s no question that we were on a path to the writing of a great wrong,” Toale said, “To do anything less than extend the window for another year would be a travesty and a tragedy.”
Lawmakers and advocates believe that a lack of awareness of the CVA limited its potential, even before the pandemic brought an end to lawsuit filings.
Asher Lovy is a part of the Orthodox Jewish Community, where he has seen no outreach done by the state to make victims aware of the new law.
The pandemic has halted further efforts by Lovy to request a public service announcement from the Governor’s Office to increase public exposure.
“We had the momentum to get it done this session and we cannot allow that momentum to die, the legislature must stay in session,” Lovy said.
Hoylman and Rosenthal pushed to add the extended look-back window into the budget that was passed last week. While it did not make a line in the 2021 budget, they are still pursuing the CVA’s extension before the lookback-window ends in August.
“We are still in session, we still have our job and our duty to continue legislating and representing our constituents and that’s what we will do,” Rosenthal said.