Recently, the Child Victims Act was passed in New York January of this year, and which went into effect last week, laid the groundwork for adults who were sexually abused as children to finally, years later, bring their cases forward and hopefully, fingers crossed, receive some sort of justice and relief.
On the surface the Child Victim Act looks like a very good thing and it is to a certain extent. It allows for a one-year period when any adult survivor of child sexual abuse could sue an abuser or an institution, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. The new law allows survivors of child sex abuse to file a civil suit until their 55th birthday, up from the previous age limit of 23, and also extends the statute of limitations for child sex abuse charges to 28 years of age for certain felony charges and up to 25 for misdemeanor charges.
What are the problems with the New York State Child victims Act?
The reality is, however, that unless the case is a high profile one, such as the much referenced Epstein case, or cases agains the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts of America, the majority of cases will most likely be brought by a person abused years ago by a family member or someone in authority.
Problem #1: Unlike criminal cases where the state pays for the prosecution, in a civil case, the person suing must either find a lawyer that will agree to taking a percentage of the settlement if they win the suit, or the person suing has to pay all lawyer fees regardless of win or loss. It is my experience that unless the case is high profile with much publicity, most lawyers will not take this kind of case or will only take it with significant up front money, placing a huge financial burden on the individual seeking justice.
Second, unlike criminal cases, there is generally no rape shield law that applies in civil cases. This means the attorney defending the abuser can ask a variety of inappropriate questions that would not be allowed in criminal court.
Thirdly, winning a civil case involves a monetary settlement with no prison time. The abuser will not be on the sex offender registry and will not have any kind of record that would keep them from working with children. Though it would seem a civil case would bring closure to the survivor, winning is difficult and at an emotional price to the survivor.
This new law may help some and if it helps only one that is a great thing. A more positive alternative would be to make child sexual abuse a crime with no statute of limitations. For example, the State of Michigan has no time limitation for first degree child sexual abuse felony charges. This allows the state to prosecute no matter when the survivor is ready to confront the abuser. The state pays for the prosecution, and if successful the abuser could spend prison time, be registered as a sex offender, and possibly have to pay restitution.
Of course there are drawbacks to criminal prosecution as well. Prosecutors will often tell survivors there simply is not enough evidence to convince a jury of guilt. Evidence and memory become more difficult to find and use as time goes by. This is true for civil cases as well.
Bottom line, survivors of sexual assault need to be supported and given opportunities to bring closure. The new Child Victims Act is a step, and can do this for some, but it is not the panacea many believe it to be. Much more could be done to address these crimes and the criminals that commit them.