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Adult survivors of past sexual abuse have a year to sue the alleged abuser, starting tomorrow

New York State Capitol building at night, Albany NY
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The New York state Capitol building at night, in Albany, NY.

There is a statute of limitations for reporting adult sexual abuse. That statute is being waived for one year, starting Thanksgiving day, due to the Adult Survivors Act.

The act is modelled on the Child Victims Act, which was approved in 2019. It allows people who were over 18 years of age when they experienced sexual abuse to have a one year window of opportunity to file a claim against their alleged abuser in civil court. They can bring legal action even if the statute of limitations for the crime has expired.

On May 24, Gov. Kathy Hochul, who replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo after he resigned in a sexual harassment scandal, signed the measure into law.

“Finally, we are starting to right a wrong that has existed for far too long,” Hochul said. “Because when it came to sexual assault, our laws were protecting the abusers more than not.”

Now, six months later, the lawsuits can begin. Since courts are closed for Thanksgiving, survivors will have to wait until Monday to file claims.

In 2019, as part of the Child Victims Act, the statute of limitations for reporting adult sexual abuse was extended from one to five years - depending on the crime - to 10 to 20 years. But that left a significant amount of New Yorkers with no legal recourse because abuses may have happened longer ago.

Supporters are raising public awareness about the law, including with a billboard in New York City’s Times Square, where they held a news conference

Evelyn Yang, wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, is among over 200 women who say they were abused by former Columbia University OBGYN Robert Hadden.

In 2016, Hadden pleaded guilty to abusing 19 women. Yang is one of 147 former patients who reached a $165 million settlement with the hospitals that employed Hadden, Columbia Medical Center and New York Presbyterian.

Yang says going to court and being heard can be empowering, and she says now survivors have that option.

“Civil suits are a means of protest,” Yang said. “It is one of the few ways we have as survivors to demand accountability.”

Over 750 women formerly incarcerated in state prisons are set to bring suit against the state Department of Corrections over prison abuse allegations.

Michael Polenberg, with survivors' rights group Safe Horizons, says there’s no way of knowing how many people will file claims. But he says the number of lawsuits filed under the window of opportunity provided by the Child Victims Act was significant. That window was extended for an additional year because of the pandemic.

“In the two years that the look back window was open in New York State, about 10,000 cases were filed,” Polenberg said.

Unlike the instances of childhood sexual abuse, many of the adult abuse incidents did not occur with a member of a large organization, like the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts

Polenberg says it is more difficult to bring cases when it does not involve an entity with significant assets.

“There will be people who may struggle to find an attorney to be able to bring a case forward,” Polenberg said. “But we think it’s really important, nonetheless, to get this law passed, to allow people every opportunity to try to find an attorney and to try to file a lawsuit.”

The law does not guarantee that anyone filing a civil case against an alleged abuser will win their case, they still need to provide evidence and convince a judge, but supporters say it can be powerful just to be heard.

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.