NEW YORK — After more than a decade of debate in Albany, the Child Victims Act went into effect across the state Wednesday.
But what exactly does it mean for New Yorkers who were victims of sexual abuse as children?
The Child Victims Act, signed into law on February 14, expands the ways that those who suffered sexual abuse as children can use the legal system to address their .
The law opened a one-year litigation window in New York that allows accusers who had previously been barred by New York’s strict statute of limitations to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers, as well as organizations and institutions. That window opened Wednesday.
The idea behind the law is that many victims of child sexual abuse keep it a secret for years, well beyond the previous statute of limitations, out of shame and fear. This law gives them a chance to “reclaim their dignity,” said Michael Polenberg of Safe Horizon, a victim assistance non-profit that worked to pass the law.
“For survivors who understand what has happened to them and know in their hearts what happened to them, they get to name that person in court,” he said.
The one-year reprieve is expected to create new opportunities for lawsuits against people or institutions implicated in child sex abuse scandals, such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, or the estate of the late Jeffrey Epstein.
What the law changes
The one-year reprieve for civil lawsuits applies to accusations of child sexual abuse, including those that had been previously dismissed for being filed too late or for those who failed to file a notice of claim in time.
“It’s a way for victims to take matters into their own hands,” said attorney Carrie Goldberg said. “It gives them a path to justice.”
The law was signed after more than a decade of opposition from the Catholic Church in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. He added that the law’s passage was “society’s way of saying we are sorry.”
“We are sorry for what happened to you,” he said. “We are sorry that it took us so long to acknowledge what happened to you. We are sorry that justice took so long. We are sorry to the other victims who, in the interim, were also violated because society was slow in acting.”
In addition to the one-year window, the act made several other changes expanding child victims’ ability to pursue justice in their cases through the legal system.
The new law allows survivors of child sex abuse to file a civil suit until their 55th birthday, an increase from the previous age limit of 23. And it also extends the statute of limitations for criminal child sex abuse charges: up until a victim turns 28 for certain felony charges and up to 25 for misdemeanor charges.
What it means for the case against Jeffrey Epstein
The one-year window will allow for lawsuits against Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier accused of abusing and harassing underage girls at his homes in New York and Florida. Despite Epstein’s death on Saturday from an apparent suicide, the civil lawsuits can continue against the multimillionaire’s estate, legal experts said.
One such case will come from Jennifer Araoz, who has said Epstein raped her when she was 15 years old. In late July, legal papers were delivered to Epstein in jail that said Araoz planned to file a lawsuit when the one-year grace period begins.
A draft version of the lawsuit also accused three unidentified women called the “Recruiter,” the “Secretary” and the “Maid,” who she alleges facilitated the abuse.
“Jennifer endured unspeakable abuse by Jeffrey Epstein and his enablers, who robbed her of a piece of her childhood,” Araoz’s attorney Daniel Kaiser said in a statement at the time. “She brought this action to hold those responsible accountable and deliver a simple message: she’s not afraid anymore.”
Laws are not typically retroactive, which is what makes the one year-window so special, lawyer Carrie Goldberg said.
“It’s a way for victims to take matters into their own hands,” said Goldberg, who tweeted about the act and offered her firm’s services to prospective clients with credible claims. “It gives them a path to justice.”
The window isn’t just for Epstein’s accusers, she said. It’s for anyone who suffered abuse long ago.
Epstein, a politically connected multimillionaire, faces federal charges for his alleged role in a sex trafficking ring believed to have included dozens of underage girls. He is accused of paying hundreds of dollars in cash to girls as young as 14 to have sex with him between 2002 and 2005 in his Manhattan home and Palm Beach estate.
Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges in Manhattan federal court on Monday afternoon.
The hedge fund manager previously evaded similar charges when he secured a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors in Miami more than a decade ago. Instead of facing federal charges, Epstein pleaded guilty to two state prostitution charges in 2008 and served just 13 months in prison. He also registered as a sex offender and paid restitution to the victims identified by the FBI.
On Monday, Epstein’s attorneys said in court that the non-prosecution agreement would constitute the centerpiece of their defense, calling the New York indictment a “do-over.” Reid Weingarten, one of Epstein’s attorneys, told the judge that there had been “no complaints” about his client’s conduct in the years since the Florida case and repeatedly called the conduct in question “ancient.”
What resources are available
-Counseling and Advocacy:
- New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault: Find your local rape crisis center: http://nyscasa.org/get-help/find-your-local-rape-crisis-program
- New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault: Survivor Resources: http://www.svfreenyc.org/survivor-resources
- 1in6: https://1in6.org
- Safe Horizon Sexual Assault Hotline: (212) 227-3000
- Culturally Specific Resources
- Survivors of Incest Anonymous
-Civil Legal Resources:
- New York City Bar Association: https://www.nycbar.org
- New York State Bar Association: http://www.nysba.org
- FaithTrust Institute: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org
-Mental Health Resources:
- Office of Mental Health: https://my.omh.ny.gov/bi/pd/saw.dll?PortalPages
- NYS Trauma-Informed Network: https://traumainformedny.org
- New York State Office of Victim Services: https://ovs.ny.gov
- Vera House, Inc. Information and Resources: https://www.verahouse.org/child-victims-act
Safe Horizon has created resources to help guide adult survivors of child sexual abuse through the process: