Abused children want more time to file charges

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The state legislature gave adult victims of childhood sexual abuse the opportunity to finally hold their abusers accountable nearly a year ago. Now, a group of lawmakers want to extend the Child Victims Act look-back window to allow even more time for legal action.

Some 1,700 suits have been filed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the act in early 2019. Most have been against organizations or institutions, but the law was designed to allow victims to bring action against individuals, as well.

A key feature of the law was the year-long window in which victims could file sexual abuse claims, even though they were previously barred by the state’s statute of limitations. Many victims don’t come forward until mid-life, decades after the abuse happened, and well after they are typically allowed to make legal claims against their alleged abusers.

Hundreds of cases poured in last summer when the period began, including two separate suits against SAR Academy in Riverdale. Both allege the school was aware then-assistant principal Stanley Rosenfeld, who worked at SAR in the 1970s and ‘80s, had inappropriate contact with students at the school, but took no action.

That look-back period ends Aug. 13, but support is mounting to extend that period for another year.

Last December, a group of Albany lawmakers assembled to talk about why an extension is vital. State Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced in their respective chambers bills that would give victims more time to take action.

A longtime advocate for the original law, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he’s all for more time. A version of the Child Victims Act languished in the Republican-controlled state senate year after year, even after passing the Assembly with broad support. Dinowitz co-sponsored the bill first introduced by former Queens Assemblywoman Margaret Markey in 2006.

“This is such an important issue for people who’ve suffered severe trauma or damage,” Dinowitz said. “I think we ought to do everything we can do for people to get justice.”

An additional year could allow abuse victims still struggling with the decision to take legal action the time to do so, the Assemblyman added.

Every individual processes childhood trauma differently, Sen. Alessandra Biaggi said. Herself a child sexual abuse victim, she fully supports more time for adults to take steps to address what happened decades earlier.

“Some people may speak up right after it happens,” she said. “For some people, it might be up a year later, or 10 years later. I think the average age when people will share that they have been sexually abused is something like 55, which is very high.”

The hundreds of suits filed in the six months since the period began should be celebrated, the senator added.

“I also know that number is very low for the amount of abuse that has happened,” Biaggi said. “It might take some people who have remained silent or have not chosen to go to the courts seeing this whole first wave of individuals come forward to know that they are able to seek justice.”

There’s another compelling reason, said Gary Greenburg, founder of Fighting for Children PAC. He lobbied for the bill and has heard from a number of people since it was signed into law who’ve decided to take their cases to the legal system. Some were reluctant to come forward until they saw other victims file lawsuits.

Momentum is likely to continue as more abuse cases are heard and adjudicated.

Unfortunately, he added, there are many victims who are still waiting for their justice.

“The other reason, and what I’m more concerned about, is many survivors are not being able to find a lawyer because there’s not an institution involved,” Greenburg said.

Successful suits against schools, clubs and institutions can see a hefty monetary payout, either as a settlement or a court order, he said. But suits brought by adult victims against old neighbors, family friends or family members aren’t likely to deal in the same dollar amounts. There’s little money to be made off regular people, even if the court finds them guilty.

There could be thousands of potential cases, but without the victim paying attorneys up front, justice may be beyond the reach of those who can’t pay.

“We have to give these victims more time and encourage lawyers to take cases on pro bono,” Greenburg said.

He’s been working closely with Biaggi and Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Suffolk County Democrat, on a bill that would create a victim’s compensation fund people could opt to pay into when they file their tax returns.

“That coordinates with the extra-year extension because the fund isn’t even created yet,” Greenburg said.

That fund would make the law more equitable, according to Biaggi. More than a few advocates have informed lawmakers that money is a huge barrier for victims. A public fund collecting voluntary donations could provide those victims a chance at justice.

“We can pass all the laws that we want,” Biaggi said, “but they don’t mean much unless people have access to those laws.”