NEW YORK, (Washington Insider Magazine) – New York State has made a lot of progress in recent years by amending our laws to reflect the reality and science of sexual trauma. In 2019, the Legislature voted to extend the civil statute of limitations for several felony sex crimes, and in the same year they gave thousands of survivors of child sexual abuse — including myself — our voices back with the Child Victims’ Act. But one crucial loophole remains in our laws: Time-barred survivors who were over the age of 18 at the time of abuse currently have no route to justice in New York State.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I know that our brains do not process trauma on a linear timeline. Rather, our brains can protect us from fully processing the horror that occurred until we are ready to confront it. This means that by the time a survivor has the language to talk about what happened or the wherewithal to do something about it, a survivor may be well beyond the statute of limitations. The Legislature recognized this truth when it enacted, and then extended, the Child Victims’ Act in 2019 and 2020.
However, it seems dangerous and off the mark to draw an arbitrary line between child and adult at 18 years old. It is not as though when we turn 18, we suddenly gain the maturity, knowledge and confidence to spot and fight off abusers, or even simply recognize abuse as it is happening. Yet our laws, as currently written, treat survivors that way, leaving no recourse for people who were 18 or older at the time of the abuse.
All survivors deserve a chance at justice and to be heard without fear of retribution. For me, having the Child Victims’ Act served as a shield. When I was finally ready to confront my perpetrator, and he came after me, I was protected by the law. Incredibly, I was able to defend myself against his retributive actions.
Realizing you can speak out and deciding to take action can be a heartbreaking process. You have to weigh the effects that doing so might have on yourself, your family, friends — and after all that, whether it’ll have any effect on the abuser. It takes time to retain a good attorney whom you trust. It takes time to overcome the trauma and self-doubt ingrained in you.
Our legal system is supposed to empower victims of crimes, in a sensible and responsible manner. The Legislature, and indeed our public, needs to understand the way survivors process trauma so that when survivors are ready to speak out they do not have an additional reason to fear their abusers. It is why we need lawmakers to pass the Adult Survivors Act before this legislative session in Albany ends in June.
The Adult Survivors Act, like the Child Victims’ Act, would give time-barred survivors who were over the age of 18 at the time of their abuse a one-year civil look-back window to hold their abusers — or the institutions that enabled them — to account.
I am a judge in New York City and have devoted my life to the law. I know firsthand that New York State has one of the finest court systems in the world. However, even I feared my perpetrator and lived in terror of confronting him. And although I am a judge, it took me some time to understand that I had recourse against him under the Child Victims Act.
Expecting that all survivors will report and file cases against their abusers within a short, prescribed amount of time lets perpetrators benefit from their own actions and the trauma they have inflicted on survivors. Society as a whole will benefit if the Legislature closes this arbitrary loophole. It is time for perpetrators to face real consequences for their actions so that survivors can finally heal.