New York Will Allow Adult Victims to Revive Decades-Old Sex Abuse Claims

ALBANY (NY)
New York Times

May 23, 2022

By Grace Ashford

Drew Dixon spent 22 years not talking about what happened to her.

But in 2017, she joined a chorus of women giving voice for the first time to some of the worst experiences of their lives. For Ms. Dixon, that meant going public to The New York Times with a long-suppressed claim that the media mogul Russell Simmons had raped her.

The response was swift and seismic: widespread media attention, conversations on Twitter, a documentary. There was solidarity, backlash and, ultimately, a sense of peace.

But there would be no criminal case or any lawsuit against Mr. Simmons: The statute of limitations for either had long since passed during the two decades Ms. Dixon kept her silence.

But Ms. Dixon will soon have an opportunity to revisit pursuing her case.

The State Assembly on Monday overwhelmingly passed the Adult Survivors Act, which enables adult victims, those 18 or older at the time of the alleged abuse, like Ms. Dixon, a one-time opportunity to file civil lawsuits in New York, even if any statutes of limitations have run out. The bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, mirrors New York’s Child Victims Act, and gives adult survivors a one-year window to file suit.

Proponents described the measure as an act of “restorative justice” that would allow victims some level of accountability and recompense, while deterring individuals and institutions from turning a blind eye in the future.

The bill’s passage runs counter to the sexist reputation of the State Capitol, where stories of sexual harassment and assault have long haunted the corridors, leading to the formation of a Sexual Harassment Working Group, comprising former legislative employees who say they have experienced or reported sexual harassment in Albany. And with high-profile political figures, like the former governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the attorney general Eric Schneiderman, resigning following allegations of sexual misconduct, it seems possible that New York’s government itself might see some legal liability, if the bill becomes law.

The Adult Survivors Act sailed through the State Senate last year but stalled in the Assembly, a fate proponents hoped to avoid this year. To that end, they waged a fervent campaign in favor of the measure, calling and writing lawmakers, and repeatedly trekking up to Albany for news conferences.

In April, the bill passed unanimously in the State Senate, and it passed the Assembly on Monday by a vote of 140 to 3.

The Child Victims Act, which passed in 2019, created a similar look-back window for people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged abuse. It resulted in more than 10,000 lawsuits being filed, according to the Office of Court Administration, which operates the state court system.

Advocates fought for 13 years to pass that legislation, battling institutional opposition from the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, among others, who feared legal exposure. They were right to worry: Both sought bankruptcy protections, in part because of the financial burden of lawsuits.

The bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Linda B. Rosenthal of the Upper West Side, said that the current laws were a remnant of a time when sexual abuse laws were written to protect abusers.

“It is no secret why many survivors do not come forward,” said Ms. Rosenthal. “They fear retaliation. They harbor shame. They worry about the consequences to them and their loved ones. Or they feel that no one will believe them.”

Some, like Ms. Dixon, may have felt they were forced to choose between coming forward and building a career.

“There was no way that I could have survived in my career if I called out the king of hip-hop,” Ms. Dixon, a music producer, said of Mr. Simmons, who has denied the allegations. “It would have been over. And I wanted to do the thing that I loved because I was good at it.”

Ms. Dixon has not decided if she will pursue a lawsuit. But she welcomed the prospect that other survivors would find in civil court a measure of the justice she had found in the court of public opinion. She added: “All survivors deserve the opportunity to be heard and scrutinized with the rigor that this would make available, so that it’s not just ‘he said, she said.’”

She believes that the bill will give older survivors, especially those who have achieved a measure of success and stability, a reason to speak up — allowing them to shoulder some of the burden currently borne by more recent victims, whose wounds are freshest and who may be more vulnerable.

Despite a fervent campaign to pass the measure amid bipartisan support, a lack of progress in the middle of the legislative session suggested that the bill seemed likely to stall for another year.

Several lawmakers spoke of concerns that had quietly begun to surface from a small cohort in the Assembly, several of whom are lawyers, that the language of the bill was overly broad.

Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti of Westchester County, who supports the bill, said that some lawmakers had questioned whether public employers, such as schools, should be held liable for wrongs committed on their predecessors’ watch decades before.

“Should today’s taxpayers be liable for actions that occurred many, many years ago when the present administration has since changed the policy?” said Mr. Abinanti.

Some in the Assembly wondered if the look-back window should be capped at 20 years, to avoid issues stemming from stale evidence, deceased witnesses and faulty memories.

“Insurance companies are saying, ‘We didn’t represent you way back when.’ You can’t even find the records to find who was the insurance company way back when,” Mr. Abinanti said. “That’s the whole point of statute of limitations.”

Supporters of the bill say these same questions were asked and answered during negotiations of the Child Victims Act in 2019.

“It remains the case that the survivors will have to prove their case,” said Liz Roberts, the chief executive officer of Safe Horizon, a victims’ services firm, which pushed for both pieces of legislation. “So they’re up against the same, you know, challenges of the time that has passed, that whatever organization or individual is defending the case is up against.”

“The bill doesn’t allow them to win their case,” she said. “It just allows them to present their case.”

Proponents gathered for an emotional news conference Monday afternoon before the bill’s passage, where multiple lawmakers spoke of their own experiences with abuse — some for the first time.

“Legislators, all of you, thank you,” Mary Ellen O’Loughlin, a survivor who leads the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, said. “And to predators and abusers — you should be worried.”

Grace Ashford is a reporter on the Metro desk covering New York State politics and government from the Albany bureau. She previously worked on the Investigations team. @gr_ashford

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/23/nyregion/adult-survivors-act.html