Survivors in New York still have seven months left in a year-long “look back” window opened by the Child Victims Act (CVA) to seek legal justice against their perpetrators and the institutions that shielded them.
Under the new law, victims born before February 14, 1996 - for whom the statute of limitations is already expired - were granted the opportunity to file civil suits against abusers, as well as both public and private institutions that enabled them, from August 14, 2019, until August 13, 2020.
Previously, survivors could pursue both civil and criminal child sexual abuse cases before turning 23. The state’s new legislation pushes the age limit for civil cases to 55, and to 28 for criminal prosecutions.
For those born between February 14, 1996, and February 14, 1998, however, the CVA’s one-year window applies only for civil suits involving negligent institutions.
“What we did with this is make sure that people got a chance to seek justice however they see fit,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz during a recent town hall at Voces Latinas in Jackson Heights.
Cruz, a champion of the CVA, courageously shared her own story of sexual abuse publicly for the first time on the State Senate floor during a debate over the bill. She is now creating a space for others to do the same.
“When we were children, anyone who has ever had to endure that, the choice was taken from us,” the Assemblywoman continued. “This is meant to give you the choice back,”
These changes to the law are intended to allow survivors a great deal more time to disclose their abuse.
Between stigma, shame and intimidation, it often takes decades for victims to come forward, and they can experience delayed trauma as a result of their encounters as children.
“Perpetrators don’t have to keep kids quiet forever,” said Jeff Dion, CEO of the Zero Abuse Project. “They just have to keep them quiet long enough to run out the clock. And that clock is the statute of limitations.”
Dion and Cruz, along with unit chief for the Queens DA Child Advocacy Center Alison Andrews and director of NY Loves Kids Amelia Tramontano, informed residents of the opportunities available for survivors under the CVA, as well as how to navigate through the entangled dynamics of child sexual abuse.
Voces Latinas is a volunteer-run organization built upon the mission of reducing violence and HIV transmission in the Queens Latinx immigrant community.
Through a partnership with Zero Abuse Project, Voces Latinas added a support team of community members for survivors to its roster of free services offered for those who struggle with mental health and substance abuse.
As Dion and other advocates spoke, a somber silence fell over the room. The audience listened intently, some breaking out in quiet tears, as they spoke of the tactics abusers use to get access to children and keep their victims silent.
Many in the room were immigrants whose childhood abuses were suffered in their home countries, which means the CVA does not apply to them.
Yet, even though they may not benefit legally, these kinds of dialogues are crucial to breaking down social and religious boundaries to speaking about child sexual abuse.
“All sorts of cultures have this barrier,” Dion remarked. “They all have different flavors and styles, and everybody thinks it’s so special to them, but there is a common undercurrent that this is something we do not talk about.”
He explained that sexual abuse of children is a crime that breeds in silence. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.
In 2017, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,158 cases of child sex abuse. But the reality is so many more victims have yet to come forward.
Events like the one at Voces Latinas open the door for people to feel more comfortable speaking their truths.
As more survivors come forward, not only do they start their own paths to recovery, but they also help to hold abusers and institutions accountable, keeping potential future victims safe.
The Zero Abuse Project is a leading nonprofit with the mission of protecting children from abuse through engaging and informing the community.
The group is in the midst of a five-year contract with the state to employ its Child First forensic interviewing program in order to provide trauma-informed training for law enforcement, child protection workers and prosecutors.
Working together with other institutions and organizations aligned with the same goals, Zero Abuse sheds light on the severity of this issue.
“No mas abusos sesual. Romper el silencio,” was the parting proclamation from Voces Latinas organizers. “No more sexual abuse. Break the silence!”
Anyone seeking support can call the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, or utilize an online chat option at hotline.rainn.org. For those who wish to take legal action, victimbar.org is a place to start.