State legislators and survivors of abuse discussing the Child Victims Act (photo: NY Senate)
Last week, advocates rallied in Albany to call on the State Assembly to pass the Adult Survivors Act, a landmark law that would create a lookback period allowing the adult victims of sexual assault and abuse whose claims are now time-barred to pursue those claims in court.
The advocates are right: Passing the Adult Survivors Act is absolutely essential if we are to provide justice to the countless people, mostly women, in New York State who have been assaulted and abused.
The Adult Survivors Act was passed unanimously by the State Senate back in June. However, the Assembly, for reasons that remain unclear, failed to even bring it to a vote at that time. It is imperative that the Assembly does so now.
The Adult Survivors Act is modelled on the Child Victims Act, which created a lookback window for survivors of sexual assault who were under the age of 18 at the time of the assault. The Child Victims Act resulted in over 9,000 lawsuits and has been incredibly effective at holding institutions accountable for long-ago abuse of children.
To understand the importance of the Adult Survivors Act it is worth looking at the details of the Child Victims Act. In February 2019, New York State passed the Child Victims Act, extending the statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse in criminal and civil cases in New York.
Previously, in criminal cases, the statute of limitations for felony offenses ended when the survivor turned 23 years old; now, the Child Victims Act increases the statute of limitations until the survivor turns 28. For misdemeanor offenses, the statute of limitations had ended when the survivor turned 20, but has now been increased to 25 years of age.
In civil cases, prior to the Child Victims Act, the victims of child sexual abuse had only a short window of years, after turning 18, to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser. The Child Victims Act created a “lookback window” for those cases as well, allowing any victim of sexual abuse whose claim was previously time-barred to bring an action up until August 14, 2020. That window was later extended to August 14, 2021. For claims that have not yet expired, the survivor now has until they turn 55 to file a claim.
The Child Victims Act allowed survivors of sexual abuse to hold powerful institutions liable for abuse that they tolerated for years. It helped more than 9,000 survivors seek justice for the wrongs committed against them. We’ve seen that first-hand. We’ve represented survivors of child sexual abuse and understand how empowering it can be to assert a claim and confront an abuser and finally get justice.
So why do we need the Adult Survivors Act? The Child Victims Act only applied to cases of abuse where the victim was under 18 years of age. The Adult Survivors Act would create a similar one-year lookback window for survivors of sexual abuse who are over 18 and whose claims are presently time-barred.
For civil cases, right now, adult survivors of sexual abuse generally have three years to file a claim. For criminal cases, the statute of limitation is generally five years for felonies, and two years for misdemeanors – some of which can be quite serious.
There has been some progress: In September 2019, the New York Legislature extended the limitations period for some rape and sexual assault cases. That was good news, but the 2019 Law did not extend all limitations periods and, more important, it did not create a lookback window. Therefore, sexual assault claims involving adult survivors that were time-barred in 2019 remain time-barred. Only the Adult Survivors Act will fix this problem.
The Adult Survivors Act should be seen as a necessary companion bill to the Child Victims Act. Given the historical stigma attached to sexual assault, as well as the career threat that reporting assault by a superior at work can entail, it is no surprise that many sexual assault survivors did not report their assaults at the time they occurred or in the years immediately following. With time, however, some survivors are able to come forward. Unfortunately, by the time they do so, the statute of limitations has often passed, and so legal redress is unavailable.
The Adult Survivors Act, by creating a lookback window, would solve this problem. Like the Child Victims Act, it would allow survivors to finally hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their conduct.
Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters are the founding partners of the law firm Peters Brovner and have represented multiple victims of sexual assault.