TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Survivors of child sex abuse have a new opportunity to seek justice in New York’s courts following the passage of the Child Victims Act. The legislation opens a one-year window to bring forth civil lawsuits related to old offenses and extends statutes of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil claims going forward. Advocates are beginning a statewide tour called “Courageous Conversations, Critical Choices” to ensure survivors and service providers understand the new law, and they made their first stop in Ithaca.

Representatives from the Zero Abuse Project and NY Loves Kids hosted a meeting with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a co-sponsor of the bill, and District Attorney Matthew Van Houten at the Tompkins County Public Library on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to get information out to people about what the law really means,” Lifton said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act into law in February, after it had been held up for 13 years due to Republican opposition in past legislative sessions. Sen. Tom O’Mara voted in favor of the bill this year but previously opposed the legislation. The Catholic Church also spent $2.9 million lobbying against the bill in New York, according to a report commissioned by Seeger Weiss LLP, Williams Cedar LLC, Abraham Watkins and the Simpson Tuegel Law Firm, firms representing about 300 survivors of church sexual abuse.

In a statement, Cuomo said the law would bring justice for survivors.

“This bill brings justice to people who were abused, and rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished for too long. By signing this bill, we are saying nobody is above the law, that the cloak of authority is not impenetrable, and that if you violate the law, we will find out and you will be punished and justice will be done,” Cuomo said.

The legislation extends the period of time during which sexual offenses against children can be prosecuted. While there is no statute of limitations in New York for the most serious felony charges — first-degree rape, first-degree aggravated sexual abuse and first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child  — other charges could only be pursued until the victim turned 23 under past law. Under the new law, child sex offenses can be prosecuted until the victim turns 28. The extended statute of limitations applies to any offenses committed after Feb. 14, 2019, the date the Child Victims Act became law.

In addition, survivors of childhood sexual assault can now bring civil lawsuits until the age of 55; the age limit was previously 23 for lawsuits filed against perpetrators and 21 for lawsuits filed against institutions accused of negligence. The new age limits apply to victims who were not yet 21 or 23 years old respectively, for suits against institutions and individuals, as of Feb. 14, 2019.

Before the Child Victims Law passed, New York’s statutes of limitations were among the shortest in the country. Several states do not impose any statute of limitations on felony sex abuse charges, including Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to RAINN, an organization that works to end sexual violence.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton shares information about the Child Victims Act in Ithaca. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

For victims of past offenses who did not file civil lawsuits in time prior to the passage of the Child Victims Act, a one-year window will open on Aug. 16, 2019, allowing cases to be brought forward. During the window, anyone who experienced child sex abuse can file a lawsuit regardless of their age and the date of the offense.

Bridie Farrell, who co-founded the advocacy organization NY Loves Kids after experiencing sexual abuse at the age of 15, said the one-year window, along with the longer statutes of limitations going forward, restores agency to survivors and provides a chance to hold perpetrators accountable.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of survivors who do come forward, and that is ultimately going to force institutions that have harbored abuse to change their patterns,” Farrell said.

Farrell emphasized that the law does not require victims to come forward, but gives them control over how they want to respond as adults to their childhood experience of victimization.

“The value of the law is that for the first time it gives survivors of child sex abuse agency over their situation, their case, their body. I encourage people to seek out mental health professionals, social services, legal counsel to decide what they want to do. This law does not mandate people to file suits; it gives them the option for the first time,” Farrell said.

Jeff Dion, CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, is a child sex abuse survivor and advocate. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Jeff Dion, CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, spoke Tuesday about the impact that bringing long hidden cases out of the shadows would have. “This is a crime that breeds in secrecy, and the only way we’re going to stop it is to get folks to talk about it.”

He said New York’s short statute of limitations had made it difficult to hold institutions that cover up abuse accountable, letting abuse spread. “One perpetrator might have 100 victims, but one institution might have 100 perpetrators,” he said, emphasizing the potential reach of negligence lawsuits.

Van Houten said the longer criminal statute of limitations will make it possible for his office to prosecute more child sex abuse cases and said two attorneys in the district attorney’s office have specialized training to do so. He encouraged those considering civil lawsuits to speak with several attorneys until they find one who has the experience and resources to successfully advocate on their behalf.

In Tompkins County, The Advocacy Center works to connect survivors of child sex abuse with legal assistance as well as support groups, mental health providers and other resources. The Advocacy Center’s hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 607-277-5000.

Anyone who has experienced child sex abuse can get confidential support by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE(4673) or chatting online at hotline.rainn.org.

Bridie Farrell, co-founder of NY Loves Kids, speaks about the Child Victims Act at the Tompkins County Public Library on June 25, 2019. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.