New York State recently enacted the New York Child Victims Act, a groundbreaking new law to benefit survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The law changes the statute of limitations for filing criminal prosecutions and civil claims. A “statute of limitations” is a period of time for filing a lawsuit that is explicitly stated in a statute. The time period is generally absolute and cannot be changed unless the statute specifically allows for such a change. Historically, New York has had very restrictive statute of limitations for child victims of sexual abuse, which have prevented victims of child sexual abuse from seeking legal recourse for decades.
The Child Victims Act scores a major victory for the brave survivors and supporters engaged in a 14-year battle to bring justice to victims of child sexual abuse. It also demonstrates a dramatic shift in policy with respect to institutions. It specifically applies “against every party whose intentional or negligent acts or omissions are alleged to have resulted in the commission” of sexual abuse against children. The law articulates that any organization or institution that is liable for the (mis)handling of sexual abuse allegations made by children will be held accountable to the victims.
Key changes to the law include:
- Extending the time to bring a civil suit against abusers and culpable institutions
- Extending the time for child sexual abuse victims to file criminal prosecutions.
- Creating a “look back period” for claims that have been denied in the past.
- Eliminating the “Notice of Claim” and “Notice of Intent” requirements for child sexual abuse claims involving public institutions.
Generally, a civil lawsuit is a lawsuit to recover money damages that can be brought by individuals or organizations against other individuals or organizations. Prior to passage of the Child Victims Act, victims of child sexual abuse had until the age of 23 to file a civil claim against their abuser and they had until the age of 21 to file a civil claim against an institution that had some culpability in allowing the abuse to occur.
Experts in the field of childhood trauma and sexual abuse have found that only 38 percent of child victims timely disclose the fact that they have been sexually abused. Further, studies show that the average age of disclosing child sexual abuse is 52 years old. Given what we know about sexual abuse disclosures, New York’s old law was wholly inadequate. It failed to take into account what we know about disclosure of sexual abuse, and afforded perpetrators the opportunity to avoid being investigated.
The New York Child Victims Act allows victims of child sexual abuse to bring civil claims until the age of 55 against abusers and/or the institutions that enabled the abuse. The new time limit for filing civil claims takes into account the delay in reporting, which historically has been a fundamental challenge for victims seeking to file claims against their abusers and organizations that were derelict in preventing the abuse.
The Child Victim’s Act “Look Back Period”
In addition to changing the civil lawsuit statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse that occurs in the future, the law also authorizes a one-year “look back period” for anyone who was previously time-barred from bringing a civil claim for child sexual abuse experienced in the past. The “look back period” applies to victims (1) who previously filed a lawsuit that was dismissed as being time-barred under the statutes of limitations, “notice of claim,” or “notice of intent” grounds; and (2) who never filed a lawsuit but whose time to file a suit would have passed.
A “look back period” in this context means that any claims that had previously been barred because of statutory time limits are restored or “revived,” allowing for any person who was sexually abused as a child to file a civil claim for damages against their abuser and any institution that is alleged to be complicit in the abuse. For example, if a 50-year-old woman was sexually abused by her teacher as a nine-year-old child, that woman now has one year to file a claim against the teacher and the school the teacher worked at, regardless of what year the abuse occurred.
The Child Victims Act requires that any case that falls under the “look back period” be filed between August 14, 2019 and August 14, 2020. It is important that any person who believes they have a civil claim under the look back statute seek out a consultation with an attorney without delay. Cases take time to file and any case that is not filed within the look back period will be time-barred and the victim will lose the right forever.
The Notice of Claim Provision
While all claims against institutions had to be brought by age 21 under the old law, claims against public institutions, such as public schools or foster care agencies, face additional hurdles. Claims against public institutions had to also be reported to the public institution, in writing, in a “notice of claim” form. A “notice of claim” is a written notification to the public institution that provides the institution with details of a particular event that may lead to a future civil claim against the institution. The written notice had to be delivered to the institution within 90 days of the date of the abuse and had to provide the facts of the abuse “with sufficient specificity. Similar “notice of intent” requirements applied to civil suits against New York State.
So, for example, if a five-year-old child was sexually abused by their public school teacher, that child was required to notify their parent or guardian, who in turn had to submit a written “notice of claim” to the “proper designated entity” within 90 days of the date of the abuse. Failing to do so barred the child from seeking recovery in the courts at any point in the future. There are exceptional cases where a court would excuse the late notice of claim or the public institution would waive the victim’s obligation to provide written notice, but those exceptions were few and far between. The overwhelming majority of cases were dismissed when a “notice of claim” was not filed timely.
The New York Child Victims Act eliminates the “notice of claim” requirement, as well as the “notice of intent” requirements. Any victim of childhood sexual abuse that seeks to file a civil claim against a public institution now has the right to do so regardless of whether the institution was formally notified in accordance with the notice of claim requirements.
A criminal prosecution is the procedure for conducting legal proceeding against a defendant for criminal conduct. In criminal cases, the victim is not a party to the lawsuit. A criminal case is filed by a legal representative for the government against the party accused of criminal conduct. Prior to passage of the Child Victims Act, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions started to run when the victim turned 18 years old. Misdemeanor offenses against victims of child sexual abuse had to be made within two years of the victim’s 18th birthday (or age 20), and felony offenses against victims of child sexual abuse had to be made within five years of the victim’s 18th birthday (or age 23).
Under the New York Child Victims Act, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions arising out of childhood sexual abuse offenses do not begin to run until the victim turns 23. As such, the time limit for criminal prosecutions for misdemeanor offenses arising out of childhood sexual abuse now ends when the victim turns 23, and the time limit for criminal prosecutions for felony offenses arising out of childhood sexual abuse now ends when the victim turns 28.
The New York Child’s Victims Act provides childhood sexual abuse victims access to a justice system that has largely excluded them in the past. It also allows for fact-based inquiries into allegations that have previously been ignored. The hope is that by allowing for these claims to investigated, wrongdoers will finally be held to account. In effect, it could serve as a wake-up call to abusers who have benefited from an imbalanced system designed to protect the organizations and institutions who had enabled the abuser.
London, K., Bruck, M., Ceci, S., & Shuman, D. (2003) Disclosure of child sexual abuse: What does the research tell us about the ways that children tell? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11(1), 194-226.;
Ullman, S. E. (2007). Relationship to perpetrator, disclosure, social reactions, and PTSD symptoms in child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 16(1), 19-36.