As an attorney, one of the hardest things I have to do is tell a sexual assault survivor that they didn’t call me soon enough to have a timely legal claim and that they can’t go to court. That’s because, under New York law as it existed for a long time, the statute of limitations on the majority of civil claims for sexual assault was just one or five years.
But the lasting trauma caused by sexual assault and fears of social stigma and retaliation often prevent survivors from coming forward quickly.
New York recognized this issue when it passed the Child Victims Act in 2019. The Child Victims Act extended the time to file new civil cases for sexual offenses against a child until the victim is 55 years old. The Child Victims Act also created a “lookback window” for child victims of sexual assault to file old, time-barred cases in court. That window was initially one year and was extended to two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (it closed in August 2021).
The Child Victims Act had a demonstrable impact: it opened up court access for children who had been sexually abused by priests, scout leaders, teachers and other authority figures. Many survivors were able to speak out against their abusers – in some cases for the first time – and achieve some measure of legal restitution for the trauma they experienced as children.
But sexual abuse is not limited to children alone. Adults can be assaulted by bosses, clients, intimate partners, law enforcement officers and others with power over them. And the challenges that prevent survivors of sexual assault from coming forward are not limited to children. Adult victims of sexual assault struggle too – sometimes with similar issues that prevent children from coming forward (such as fear, confusion and trauma) and sometimes with hurdles unique to adults (concerns about jobs, reputation and retaliation).
I’ve spoken with survivors who were scared to come forward because their rapist was their employer – and they feared losing their job, their means of supporting their children and sometimes their work visa. I’ve heard from survivors who were college students at the time of the assault – technically adults under the law, but lacking the support system, resources and knowledge necessary to find a lawyer to help them. I’ve talked with survivors whose assailants were powerful public figures with access to daunting resources to attack their accusers. And I’ve had survivors tell me that they did try to get help – they reported to a teacher, a parent or even to law enforcement – but the response was victim-shaming and discouragement from doing anything further.
As the law stands today in New York, many of these survivors are denied the right to go to court and hold their rapists accountable because the time to file a claim expired before they had the resources and capacity necessary to call a lawyer.
In recognition of this reality, New York recently extended the criminal and civil statute of limitations for most sexual assaults to 20 years. But that new law only applies to assaults that occur in 2019 or after. It does not help all of the survivors who were assaulted before then, who are still subject to the old, shorter statutes of limitations.
Starting this month, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature have the opportunity to pass the Adult Survivors Act. The proposed legislation is based off of the Child Victims Act. It would create a new “lookback window,” so that adult survivors of sexual assault that occurred before 2019 can go to court and seek justice, accountability and compensation from their assailants and the institutions that enabled them, even if the assault occurred many years ago.
The Adult Survivors Act passed the state Senate unanimously last spring but for unclear reasons failed to advance in the Assembly. With a new governor at the helm and a new legislative session that began this month, New York’s leaders have another chance to pass this important law.
Neighboring New Jersey passed the same kind of law in 2019 (the time to file cases there in the lookback window closed on Nov. 30, 2021).
It’s time for New York to do the same
Zoe Salzman is a partner at New York civil rights law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel who specializes in representing victims in #MeToo cases with claims for sexual harassment, assault or abuse.