Gov. Hochul signs the Adult Survivors Act (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)
This is a troubling time in America. With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the fight over women's reproductive rights is becoming more focused on state capitals, where at least half of the states in this country are likely to ban or seriously restrict abortions (and, in some cases, certain forms of birth control) even in cases of rape and incest or the serious injury or death to the pregnant woman. This will cause immeasurable harm to women and girls, including the victims of sexual assault.
In the midst of this darkness, a small bit of good news emerged this week from New York State’s capital, where the Legislature passed and the Governor signed the Adult Survivors Act (ASA) -- a law that will allow survivors of sexual assault whose claims are long time-barred to once again bring those claims.
And make no mistake, such sexual assault is endemic in America. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest non-profit anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. The legal system is simply failing these victims.
To begin with, the criminal justice system often provides little help to the survivors of sexual assault. For example, for several years we ran New York City’s Department of Investigation which, among other things, oversaw the NYPD’s Inspector General. During our time at DOI, we did a lengthy investigation of the NYPD that demonstrated, in stark terms, how poorly one of the nation’s premier police forces investigated sexual assault and how little then-senior leaders of the Police Department cared about getting it right.
The civil justice system has its own limitations, with short times to bring lawsuits that often do not allow survivors to process what has happened to them in time to seek justice.
The fight to protect the survivors of sexual assault, like the fight to protect reproductive rights, will now also play out in the various state capitals. New York’s path to the ASA is instructive in this regard.
In February 2019, New York State passed a “lookback window,” the Child Victims Act (CVA), extending the statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse in criminal and civil cases in New York. In civil cases, prior to the CVA, the victims of child sexual abuse had only a short window of time, after turning 18, to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser. The CVA permitted child victims of sexual abuse whose claim was previously time-barred to bring an action. Other states have passed similar statutes and earlier this year, Louisiana became the 22nd state to pass such a lookback statute.
We have experience representing survivors under the CVA and have seen firsthand how the CVA allowed survivors of sexual abuse to hold powerful institutions — including private and public schools — liable for abuse that those institutions had tolerated for years. The CVA allowed victims of sexual abuse to finally hold institutions like the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America accountable for enabling the abuse of thousands of children. It helped more than 10,000 victims bring sexual abuse cases and seek justice for the wrongs committed against them.
New York State has now taken the next step in this fight for justice by passing the Adult Survivors Act. The bill goes into effect in six months. Based on the CVA, the ASA will create a one-year lookback window for survivors of sexual abuse who are over 18 years of age and whose claims are presently time-barred.
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 ASA, by creating a lookback window, will solve this problem. Like the CVA, it will allow survivors to finally hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their conduct.
New York did well in passing this law. Survivors of sexual assault in every state need similar laws. Now that organizing is increasingly focused on state capitals, that organizing should include some version of the ASA to provide justice for survivors of sexual assault. Victims of child sexual abuse had to wait years both in New York and many other states to get lookback statutes. Adult survivors throughout the country should not need to wait a similar amount of time.
Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters are the founding partners of Peters Brovner LLP, a boutique law firm that focuses on, among other things, helping survivors of sexual assault. They previously ran the New York City Department of Investigations.