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Adult Survivors Act passes the NYS Assembly, ready for Hochul's pen

The state capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas

Following an agreement in the New York State Assembly to pass the Adult Survivors Act, victims of sexual harassment and abuse say now they and others can finally have their day in court.

The law, which is modeled after the Child Victims Act, would give adult survivors who have passed the statute of limitations a one-year window of opportunity to sue their alleged abusers.

The victory was bittersweet. At an emotional event Monday, survivors recounted their experiences of harassment and abuse, and two assemblywomen publicly disclosed for the first time that they, too, are survivors.

Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas represents portions of Queens.

“25 years ago, at the age of 21, I was raped,” González-Rojas said. “I’ve never said that out loud before.”

Ithaca Assemblywoman Anna Kelles also spoke for the first time about being raped when she was 18. She says for years, she “shoved down” the emotions around the incident.

“When they conflict with the idea of yourself that you are trying to create at such an early age,” Kelles said. “That you are strong. How could this happen? That you are successful. That you are just starting a very promising life. That feels like it was taken away from you, as was your identity.”

In 2019, the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit in a rape case was extended from three years to 20 years, but people who were abused before then did not have any legal recourse.

Speaking on the Assembly floor, sponsor Linda Rosenthal says once the measure becomes law, survivors will take back their power and begin to heal.

“With this vote today, the Assembly signals that it is part of the change that we need.” Rosenthal said. “It is part of the movement to right the historic wrongs that for too long have blamed survivors and forced them into the shadows.”

The bill had been unanimously approved in the State Senate twice, but was stalled in the Assembly, where some members were said to have “concerns” with the bill. Governor Kathy Hochul had also been hesitant to commit to the measure, saying that she supported the concept but wanted to see the bill’s specific language. But late last week, Assembly Democrats quietly revealed that they now had the votes for the measure to pass, and Hochul promised to sign it.

Mary Ellen O’Loughlin, executive director of the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, says upcoming electoral contests might have been a factor in the change in attitude toward the bill.

“We did leverage the fact that there are elections right around the corner. We’ve got primaries coming up,” O’Loughlin said. “This is an important issue to residents of New York state.”

Earlier this month, survivors called out Speaker Carl Heastie by name at a news conference held on Zoom. Evelyn Yang is one of over 200 women who say they were abused by former Columbia University gynecologist Robert Hadden.

“Without the go-ahead from Speaker Carl Heastie, the bill will just die again,” Yang said on May 12. “Like last year, when he didn’t even bring the bill to the floor for a vote.”

O’Loughlin says if survivors shamed those assemblymembers who were holdouts on the bill, then she’s glad.

“Frankly, I hope we did. It is shameful not to pass it,” O’Loughlin said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

In a statement, Speaker Heastie said “all survivors of sexual abuse deserve justice and to have their day in court.”

“This legislation builds on our previous work to protect survivors of childhood sexual abuse by ensuring that adults who have been subject to such atrocious crimes are able to seek civil redress against their abuser,” Heastie said.

The one-year window would begin in late November, six months after the law is signed. Advocates say they don’t know how many survivors will come forward and file lawsuits. More than 11,000 survivors of childhood sexual abuse filed court claims after the Child Victims Act was approved in 2019.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.