As the door closes on an era of state government rife with sexual harassment and related wrongdoing, a lookback window to help victims of childhood sexual abuse seek justice is about to shut.
Survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse were empowered Tuesday after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he will leave office Aug. 24 after a state attorney general’s report confirmed he sexually harassed multiple women, and alleges he sexually assaulted one current staffer. Albany’s culture was placed under a microscope, pushing the need to pass the Adult Survivors Act and the looming Child Victims Act deadline into the spotlight.
The Child Victims Act allows survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers for incidents that happened before age 18.
“You don’t have to have your case fully argued to file, so please find an attorney,” said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, who sponsored the CVA.
Rosenthal urged any person who thinks they have a case to call an attorney and take action by Friday. She recommended survivors contact Safe Horizon, a nonprofit agency dedicated to connecting victims with support services and safety, for assistance about filing a case.
“Speak with someone to find some help to bring a case before the window shuts or you will have lost your opportunity,” Rosenthal said Wednesday.
Child Victims Act cases must be filed by the end of the business day Friday to increase likelihood of accessing an attorney.
Bridie Farrell, 39, of North River, was a nationally ranked speed skater by age 13, competing in four Olympic trials, including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Farrell traveled the globe on the U.S. speedskating team, but was sexually abused at age 15 by a 33-year-old mentor and teammate.
“He went on to be the president of U.S. speedskating,” Farrell said. “It was truly like the fox guarding the hen house. When I came back to speed skating in 2013, I realized it was all the same.”
Years later, Farrell broke her silence and advocated for the passage of the Child Victims Act and similar legislation to help survivors in other states.
Farrell, of North River, is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville to represent New York’s 21st District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The state Office of Court Administration reports 9,241 Child Victims Act cases filed, up from 7,339 on July 19 — a nearly 26% increase in just over three weeks as cases pour in before the deadline.
A person in the United States is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. The victim is a child every nine minutes, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
“We’re a whole class of people the judicial system said, ‘You don’t get a voice here,’ and the passing of the Child Victims Act changed that,” Farrell said.
Navigating the legal process can be difficult for survivors, especially when an attorney lacks knowledge about how to respectfully speak with victims about their past abuse.
“I know how hard it is,” Farrell said. “An attorney needs to be trauma-informed and respectful. People are nervous to come forward, and as a trusted voice in the survivor community, I’m happy to point people in the direction of the list of folks who are well-versed in this topic of law.”
But several organizations and trained professionals work to help survivors, compassionately listen to their stories and secure legal counsel, Farrell said.
“These cases work on contingency, so it doesn’t cost money for the survivor to talk to lawyers as long as it’s a privileged conversation,” she said.
The state’s Child Victims Act lookback window was extended an additional year in June 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state’s court system and limited the ability of legal procedures.
Rosenthal sponsored the law together with Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who said the Child Victims Act has helped bring justice to thousands of New Yorkers working to heal from past trauma.
“It takes time for survivors to come to terms to their abuse and that delays the filing of court cases,” Hoylman said. “There are virtually no cases of false claims being filed as far as we can determine at this point.”
California first opened a one-year lookback window for victims of child sexual abuse in 2003. The state reopened an opportunity for survivors in 2020.
Rosenthal plans to speak with her colleagues about the need to create another window in the law, and when. She also sponsors a bill to eliminate the statutes of limitation in childhood sexual assault and related crimes.
Rosenthal and Hoylman were close to pass the Adult Survivors Act this session, which would be timely on the heels of Gov. Cuomo’s resignation after the attorney general’s report about his culture of sexual harassment, concluding he broke federal and state law.
The Adult Survivors Act — modeled after the Child Victims Act — would allow New Yorkers who suffered sexual abuse after the age of 18 to file civil lawsuits against their abusers for one year, regardless if statutes of limitations on legal claims have expired.
Adult sexual abuse is common in the modeling and acting industries — such as convicted rapist and former film producer Harvey Weinstein — and in the athletic world, as stories of abuse mount from Olympic trainers and coaches, doctors and many others.
“It’s all over the place, this kind of abuse,” Rosenthal said. “The fact someone was 18 and not 17 doesn’t meant they don’t get their shot at justice. It should not mean that.”
Senators unanimously voted 62-0 to pass the measure June 3.
“Time is of the essence, particularly as memories become more stale, as defendants and institutions may die or go out of business,” Hoylman said. “It’s only fair that we give the same opportunity to those who are abused as adults. The statute of limitations was punitively short for them as well.”
The bill died in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers and advocates have struggled to get a clear answer about the reason the bill did not pass in the Assembly before session ended June 10.
Rosenthal and Hoylman cited a lack of education for members not prioritizing to vote on the bill to help adult survivors. The COVID-19 pandemic also largely prevented survivors from meeting directly with legislators.
“Some people didn’t understand it, really, and some people thought incorrectly it was going too quickly,” Rosenthal said. “Meeting with any survivor is enough to convince anyone how absolutely critical this law is needed ... but after all that’s transpired with the governor, I don’t think people actually need another lesson.”
State Attorney General Letitia James’s office’s investigation into the 11 women who accused Gov. Cuomo of sexual harassment and misconduct was ongoing when session ended. The probe could have given some lawmakers pause to pass the Adult Survivors Act in fear it would open the state up for potential litigation.
Activists and survivors who rallied for the bill’s passage in June also said lawmakers were vague about the reason the measure stalled in the Assembly, commonly receiving canned responses of “we are looking at the bill,” and “we are talking with our conference about the bill.”
“It had a lot of support and had it moved to the floor, it would have passed,” Rosenthal said. “Now that session is over, we have another opportunity to do the right thing.”
The assemblymember is confident the measure will soon be approved in the lower house.
“For numerous reasons, I think the bill will definitely pass next session, unless we try to do it earlier,” she said.
Legislative leaders could call a special session and return lawmakers to the Capitol at any time.
Lawmakers could reconvene before the end of the month to extend the state’s COVID-19-related eviction moratorium, which expires Aug. 31.
“Perhaps,” Rosenthal said of potentially getting a chance to vote this year on the Adult Survivors Act, or other business.
“It doesn’t usually happen because they try to stick to the reason we come back, however, you can’t be surprised by anything these days.”
The release of the facts of the governor’s sexual harassment scandals shows the importance of passing the Adult Survivors Act as soon as possible, assemblywoman said.
“There’s a long, sordid history of children being abused by powerful people, mostly men, and here in the state Legislature, part of our role is to make for more justice in the world to create opportunities for people to seek justice, and that’s exactly what the Child Victims Act does, and that’s exactly what the Adult Survivors Act does,” Rosenthal said. “And that’s what we will increasingly be doing in the future in the aftermath of the revelations of Gov. Cuomo’s behavior.”