After 12 years of Republican stonewalling on the Child Victims Act, Senator Catherine Young seems to have introduced a bill that the Republicans can get behind. This is not the first time that Republicans or their allies have introduced an alternative to the Child Victims Act. Two notable alternatives have been introduced in the past, one by Republican Senator Andrew Lanza, and the other by IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein. The central point of contention between Republicans and Democrats on this issue seems to be the “lookback window,” a provision survivors and advocates have been pushing for which would open a one-year window during which civil child sexual abuse cases whose statutes of limitation have expired could nonetheless be brought in court against both abusive individuals, and any institutions that enabled or protected them.
For the past 12 years, powerful interests in New York State, such as the New York Catholic Conference, Agudath Israel of America, Boy Scouts of America, the American Insurance Association, Zurich Insurance, and Liberty Mutual, have been spending millions of lobbying dollars in opposition to any version of the Child Victims Act containing a lookback window provision. While the Child Victims Act has been passed several times in recent years by the state assembly, it has, year after year, been stalled in committee in the senate by majority leader John Flanagan and has yet to even reach the floor for a vote in the senate.
Which brings us to senator Young’s proposal. Her alternative would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse entirely, leave the civil statute of limitations as is, and establish a $300 million fund, to be replenished every year with another $50 million, to reimburse survivors for any claims against individuals or institutions that have passed the statute of limitations. What’s particularly striking about her proposal is the fact that it’s not just a one-time event, but will continue to exist after the first year, paying expired claims well into the future. This fund would be paid for by civil asset forfeiture money currently held by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
The bill came as a surprise to survivors and advocates for the Child Victims Act, especially since senator Young consulted only one survivor before introducing the bill despite being aware of two large coalitions of survivors and advocates who for years have been advocating for the Child Victims Act, and a vast majority of whom oppose her alternative.
On its face, her proposal seems like an attempt to establish a bail-out for institutions that for decades have hidden behind New York State’s abysmal laws to avoid responsibility for enabling child sexual abuse and protecting abusers. For no other civil or criminal matter does there exist a fund like this which, on behalf of the parties responsible, and with no intention of seeking reimbursement from the responsible parties. For no other civil matter does the state bar access to court for claimants. While some might claim that since the statute of limitations has expired on these cases the claimants, in fact, don’t have any right to claim that they’re being barred from court, the existence of one injustice—the abysmal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse currently on the books in New York—doesn’t excuse another injustice—the barring of survivors from accessing the courts once we’re finally righting that terrible wrong.
Furthermore, in failing to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, senator Young makes it clear that her proposal is not just a one-time reparative measure to atone for past wrongs while ensuring justice in the future; rather it is a perpetual bailout of abusers and institutions paid for by the citizens of New York. The message this proposal sends to institutions who, through their negligence, indifference, self-interest, and disregard for the safety of their charges, were responsible for the sexual violation of children is that not only will there be no consequences for their negligence in the past, there will never be any consequences in the future. Given no incentive to reform, institutions will continue doing what they’ve always done: protecting abusers, silencing victims, and endangering children.
Senator Young claims that her proposal serves a population that will be underserved by the Child Victims Act—survivors who were abused by individuals who do not have enough assets for a lawyer to be interest in taking a case against them on contingency basis. That, at least, is true. For such survivors, particularly if they don’t have the necessary money to pay a lawyer’s hourly rate, the likelihood of them getting justice in court is slim. While it may be true that fund like the one proposed by senator Young would take care of survivors in that situation, it seems disingenuous to require survivors as a whole to choose between holding institutions accountable and disincentivizing future institutional negligence, and giving victims of private abusers access to the funds they need to pay for treatment. If senator Young is serious about helping those survivors who will be underserved by the Child Victims Act, she should propose this fund as an amendment to the Child Victims Act, rather than trying to divide the survivor community with an impossible, and wildly unjust choice.
Even if this were added to the Child Victims Act, as it stands there are glaring process with this proposal. No actual process is detailed in the bill for filing a claim with the commission it would establish. No evidentiary standard is specified, and no criteria are defined for acceptance or rejection of a claim. All of that is left to the discretion of a chief administrator who
In its original version, this proposal made no mention of whether or not the results of these hearings could be publicized by survivors who might wish to publicly name their abuser. One of the primary motivations behind the lookback window is the ability, once a civil trial is won, to publicly identify abusers thus warning people who may be oblivious to the threat living in their neighborhood, teaching in their school, or babysitting their kids, that they should keep their children away from these heretofore hidden predators. The bill was amended to include a provision establishing a website with a list of people who have been found by these hearings to be abusers, but there’s no indication whether or not such a list would hold up to a court challenge by someone named on it, and it doesn’t require the listing of institutions found responsible for enabling or covering up abuse. This reinforces the clear fact that this bill is intended to do nothing but shield institutions from monetary and reputational responsibility.
New York has for too long denied justice to survivors of child sexual abuse, and in doing so has endangered the lives of every child in New York State. On average it takes survivors of sexual abuse between 20-40 years to disclose their abuse. A statute of limitations of only 5 years for child sexual abuse is nothing but a cruel affront to justice. Abusers in New York know that they are less likely to be prosecuted for their crimes in New York than in the vast majority of this country. Shielded by New York State law, they abuse with impunity. Institutions, similarly aware of the improbability of being brought to court for covering up sexual abuse, continue to silence victims and shield abusers in their employ thus endangering the lives of every child under their care.
The only way to get serious about ensuring justice for survivors and protecting New York’s children is by extending or eliminating the civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse, eliminating the 90 day notice of claim for claims against public institutions, and opening a retroactive window during which all survivors whose claims against individual abusers and institutions that protected abusers and silenced their victims can be brought in civil court, all of which is covered by the Child Victims Act that the Republicans have been refusing to even allow to the floor of the senate for a vote.
So why are senator Young and the other 18 sponsors of this bill pushing a bill that so plainly bails out institutions at the expense of survivors?
Recent polls have shown that 90% of New Yorkers support the Child Victims Act. The Republicans are well aware, given how many senators are up for reelection this year, that New Yorkers are fed up with their obstruction of the Child Victims Act, and are attempting to use this poison pill proposal as smokescreen for their inaction. They’re hoping that New York voters will see senator Young’s proposal as a step toward reasonable compromise, instead of the state sponsored bailout for abusive institutions it actually is.
Sorry, senator, New York won’t be that easily fooled.