As Pandemic Halts Child Victims Act Filings, Lawmakers Rally for Extension
By Cayla Harris
March 24, 2020
|Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks at a press conference at the Capitol to mark the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Child Victims Act on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Albany, N.Y. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)|
ALBANY – As the COVID-19 pandemic has put all non-essential court filings on pause, lawmakers and activists are ramping up calls to extend the Child Victims Act's "look-back" window that is set to expire this summer.
Last August, the Child Victims Act opened a one-year period for survivors of all ages to pursue previously time-barred claims against their alleged abusers – but, as some survivors have faced difficulty finding attorneys or coming to terms with their abuse, legislators have looked to extend the window another 12 months. Those calls are more pressing now, lawmakers and activists say, after the state court system on Sunday suspended most civil filings as the COVID-19 emergency has significantly reduced staff and operations.
Advocates hope to include an extension in the state's annual budget package, due by April 1.
"This is an extraordinary time for New York state, and circumstances around the budget are unusual to say the least, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that adult survivors of child sexual abuse will be further harmed by our legal system if we don’t move to extend the window," said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, a sponsor of both the Child Victims Act and the extension proposal.
The state Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have been working to craft an expedited budget, which, each year, also includes a number of policy proposals unrelated to the state's financial health. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, an Assembly sponsor of the CVA and the extension proposal, said the budget would be the "most expedient" vehicle to approve a widened filing period.
"Most people think it’s doubtful that, after the budget is done, that we’ll just resume session as normal," Rosenthal said. "So, it’s up in the air when we would return."
There is interest in both chambers to broaden the window, but the final decision will come down to the budget negotiations ultimately endured by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie. All are Democrats.
The strongest push to extend the look-back period has come from the Senate: "We are certainly interested in this, and it has been discussed," Senate Majority spokesman Mike Murphy said. "We would hope to be able to move this forward."
The other two elected officials at the budget negotiation table are reviewing the proposal.
"It is something we would discuss with our members," said Assembly Majority spokesman Michael Whyland. And from Cuomo senior adviser Richard Azzopardi: "This is something we'll look at, and I'm sur?e we'll be discussing with the Legislature."
Both declined to say whether Heastie and Cuomo, respectively, support extending the look-back window.
Cuomo had previously cast doubt on efforts to extend the window, telling reporters in late February: "If there is a cause to believe ... that we were incorrect in setting the window, then but I would revisit it, but theoretically, we knew what we were doing when we passed the law in the first place." But, certainly, that was before a global pandemic shuttered nearly all aspects of daily life.
In the meantime, activists – who would typically rally at the Capitol in the days and weeks leading up to the budget deadline – are corresponding with legislators over text, email and social media to continue rallying for an extension.
"This is a crazy time, and it’s true that systems have to adjust to the health crisis that we’re facing now, but it also shouldn’t mean that promises that were long overdue to survivors shouldn’t be kept," said Michael Polenberg, vice president of government relations for the victim advocacy group Safe Horizon.
The pandemic fallout has exacerbated some of the issues already facing survivors who had hoped to file a Child Victims Act complaint, said Mary Ellen O'Loughlin, an Albany-area survivor and the executive director for the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse. She has had difficulty finding a lawyer to represent her case, as her alleged abuser is a family member who does not have large assets.
The majority of complaints filed so far have targeted institutions with deep pockets and the potential for a large payday in court, including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.
"For me, personally, I very much believe and am asking for an extension of the window, but certainly, too, there are so many people who are just coming to terms with their abuse," O'Loughlin said. "It’s a trauma that is very, very difficult to talk about – even for me."
It is also unclear whether the time period for which the courts are not accepting non-essential filings will be tacked onto the end of the look-back period, which is set to expire Aug. 13. A spokesman for the state court system said there is "no answer yet," but it will likely be a discussion.
As of March 16, nearly 1,800 cases had been filed under the Child Victims Act, according to weekly data from the court system. The state has stopped compiling weekly tallies amid the reduction in court services.
But while the court system is stalled, some lawyers are continuing to work behind-the-scenes with their clients to prepare lawsuits to file on the first day the court system reopens. Hillary Nappi, a Manhattan-based attorney who is already litigating multiple Child Victims Act cases, said she has about 20 complaints ready to go as soon as she can begin filing again.
She has spent the past few weeks working with clients over Zoom and FaceTime, trying to aid survivors who may feel discouraged as their cases face delays outside of their control.
"It’s very hard for a person … to hear that their case is not essential," Nappi said. "It is essential to them because they were waiting their whole lives for this moment."