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Advocates, lawmakers call for passage of Adult Survivors Act in NY

Donna Hylton, activist and author of the memoir, A Little Piece of Light, speaking in Westchester County April 14, 2022.
WAMC screenshot from Facebook: Safe Horizon
Donna Hylton, activist and author of the memoir, A Little Piece of Light, speaking in Westchester County April 14, 2022.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. On Thursday, New York state lawmakers joined survivors in Westchester County to call attention to a bill that would give some adult survivors the opportunity to sue their abusers in court.

The Adult Survivors Act is similar to the Child Victims Act passed by the legislature in 2019. It gave survivors of childhood sexual abuse a one-year lookback window to sue their abusers, in some cases long after the state’s statute of limitations expired.

The one-year window was ultimately extended another year due to the coronavirus pandemic. This time, the Adult Survivors Act would open up that opportunity to those who were 18 years or older at the time of their abuse. The bill was passed by the state Senate last year, but has stalled in the Assembly.

On a blustery Thursday in the Hudson Valley, advocates with the victims assistance nonprofit Safe Horizon gathered outside the Westchester County Court in White Plains to push for the bill’s passage.

State Senator Shelly Mayer, a Democrat from the 37th District, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"This is so basic to our system of laws. We're not talking about criminal penalties here, we're talking about the opportunity to confront your accuser and make a civil claim for damages," says Mayer. "And that is what our systems of laws is based on. The equality of opportunity to assert your claim."

Safe Horizon Vice President of Government Affairs Michael Polenberg says more than 10,000 lawsuits were filed as a result of the Child Victims Act by the time its lookback window closed last August. Four of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses filed for bankruptcy, as did the Boy Scouts of America, at least partly due to a large number of lawsuits regarding sexual abuse.

In 2019, lawmakers also expanded the civil and criminal statute of limitations for several felony sex offenses in the state. The criminal statute of limitations for second and third-degree rape increased from five years to 20 and 10 years, respectively, and Polenburg says the civil statute now stands at 20 years for both — but he notes those changes were made proactively, not retroactively.

"Meaning certain survivors who were abused before 2019 still only have a few years to file a civil lawsuit," he adds.

Polenberg says as child victims have been given the chance to look back, so should adults. For many survivors, coming to terms with what they went through can take years, even decades.

Donna Hylton, activist and author of the memoir “A Little Piece of Light,” says she’s been surviving trauma and sexual abuse for the majority of her life – something she didn’t really come to terms with until after her incarceration at age 20. Hylton says she was incarcerated for 27 years, and that people often misunderstand the sheer number of adult survivors in state prisons alone.

“That 85 percent that we’ve been told for so long, of women, young women, and gender-expansive people that are in the system, that have been abused, is wrong. It’s more like 97 percent. Closer to 98 percent. Why? Because people still don’t talk. Why? Because people still don’t listen," says Hylton.

Assemblymember Amy Paulin spoke at the press conference Thursday.
Screenshot - Facebook: Safe Horizon
Assemblymember Amy Paulin spoke at the press conference Thursday.

Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from the 88th District, says she became a survivor at age 14, and it took years for her to say it out loud.

“I buried it, it was something I was embarrassed about, it was something that I never told anyone about — and I don’t know that that would have been different if I was four years older," says Paulin. "If you’re 17, you’re a minor, you’re 18 and all of sudden you’re not. And I don’t know what shifts or changes in a young woman's mind…not that much. So we have not addressed the remedies for so many young women who likely have not or did not even come to grips with their own sexual assault. So this is a very important bill.”

“For many years, it was the State Assembly that moved the Child Victims Act forward. We're now in the situation where it's the Senate who's moving on the Adult Survivors Act — they passed it last year unanimously, everyone voted in support," adds Polenberg. "This year, the bill has already moved through the Judiciary Committee and the Finance Committee, and it's now heading to the floor, and it's the Assembly where the bill seems to be stuck. So we're hopeful that, with the support of the assemblymembers here today, that we can finally move this bill forward this year."

Fellow Democratic State Assemblymembers Chris Burdick and Tom Abinanti joined Paulin at the press conference. New York’s legislative session wraps on June 2.

Safe Horizon has operated a network of New York City programs helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, homelessness and more since 1978. The nonprofit says it responds to roughly 250,000 New Yorkers a year who have experienced violence or abuse.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."