JURIST Guest Columnist Emma Bailey, an Awareness Coordinator, discusses the uncertainty around the look-back window in New York's Child Victims Act and calls for the state to extend the look-back window in light of COVID-19...
Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he was extending the “NYS on Pause” restrictions until May 15th, halting all non-essential business in the state. Though the governor’s actions will ensure the health and safety of New Yorkers as the state continues battling the novel Coronavirus, “NYS on Pause” restrictions have tremendously impacted the state’s justice system. Courts across the state have been closed and case filings deemed nonessential have been suspended. The Child Victims Act and cases filed in relation to it have fallen under the nonessential umbrella, which has has left many child sexual abuse survivors and advocates unsure about the fate of their cases. These uncertainties only increased following the New York State Legislature’s decision to not extend the deadline to file in early April.
The Child Victims Act is a relatively new piece of legislation that was signed into law in February 2019 and has dramatically increased the legal rights and capabilities of child sexual abuse survivors in New York State. The CVA enables survivors of abuse to file a lawsuit without a notice of claim for sexual offenses committed against a minor and extends the legal deadline for filing criminal and civil charges against an abuser. The legislation also creates a one-year “look-back window,” which empowers any survivor to file a claim against their abuser regardless of when they were abused or their age at the time of the abuse.
The one year “look-back window” has proven to be an especially important component of the Child Victims Act. Experts agree the physical and emotional traumas inflicted on survivors of child sexual abuse are devastating and many survivors do not come to terms with this trauma or even recognize that they were abused until they are grown adults. The look-back window ensures that adults who have recognized sexual abuse decades after the abuse has occurred are able to file criminal or civil suits against the perpetrators. Additionally, it enables adult survivors who were abused as children to seek damages from institutions like the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America for protecting known predators and allowing them to work in close proximity to children. These institutions had previously been able to escape prosecution in some cases by the statute of limitations.
The initial impact of the look-back window was immediate with over 1,500 lawsuits filed between the time the window was opened through February 2020. However, as COVID-19 began to spread across the country and brought both public and private New York businesses to a screeching halt, the Child Victims Act filings were deemed non-essential business and all court filings were suspended until further notice.
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, along with Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, sponsored the creation and implementation of the Child Victims Act for years before it was passed in 2019. Recently, Hoylman acknowledged the implications the “NYS on Pause” restrictions would have on survivors’ ability to take advantage of the look-back window, stating that “The massive unexpected interruption to our judicial system makes the need for extending the CVA more urgent than ever.”
According to Hoylman, extending the look-back window is the only solution. The extension would ensure that survivors have the time they need to assess their own situations and cases and eventually see their day in court once the restrictions on filings were lifted. Hoylman states that “It’s always been prudent to extend the CVA’s revival window,” citing New Jersey and California’s look-back windows as potential models for New York.
The two states have different, though similarly progressive, statutes to empower child sexual abuse survivors to take legal action against their abusers. New Jersey’s Bill S477 created a look-back window that opened on December 1st, 2019 and allows survivors to file claims until November 30th, 2021. The bill allows survivors of child sexual abuse and adult sexual abuse to file anytime within the two-year window. California’s Assembly Bill 218, one of the most recent in the country, allows survivors to file until they are 40 years old, recover triple the damages in the case of a cover-up of the abuse, and creates a three-year look back window for survivors of any age to file a suit. Both states have implemented their own social distancing restrictions in response to the Coronavirus, but have not faced the same levels of scrutiny from survivor advocacy groups given the multi-year look back windows in place.
Hoylman concluded his remarks on the Child Victims Act saying, “New York promised survivors in 2019 that we’d give them a chance to seek justice—and we must live up to that promise. We must extend the Child Victims Act’s revival window for an additional year, either in standalone legislation or as part of the budget.”
Survivors of child sexual abuse have also spoken out regarding the potential extension of New York’s look-back window. Teri Hatcher and fellow child abuse survivor Tom Andriola advocated for an extension for New York survivors in a powerful piece in the New York Daily News back in March with Hatcher recalling her own child-to-adult survivor experience.
Hatcher states in the article, “I never said anything [about her abuse] until years later when I read about another girl he abused who committed suicide as a result. My testimony eventually helped put him in jail, where he died. But for others like me, they have until 2023 to file a case. Those three years means more control to make the right decision.”
The disappointing decision to not extend the NYS deadline came at an especially bad time as April is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month. Many events and campaigns to bring awareness to these causes have had to be canceled or postponed as social distancing restrictions continue around the country.
The latest inaction by New York lawmakers is not the end of the road for those relying on the Child Victims Act. The look-back window remains open until August 2020 and, though the Coronavirus is still keeping courts closed for now, there is hope New York could ease restrictions heading into summer. Until then, survivor support organizations and survivors themselves continue to advocate to ensure that anyone affected by child sexual abuse will have the opportunity to seek justice in court.
For more information visit AbuseLawsuit.com
Emma Bailey is an Awareness Coordinator working to inform and empower survivors of institutional sexual abuse. Through raising awareness, Emma hopes to connect survivors with the information and resources they need.
Suggested citation: Emma Bailey, COVID-19 is Impacting the New York Child Victims Act, JURIST – Professional Commentary, May 2, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/emma-bailey-covid-19-new-york-child-victims-act/
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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