Frequently Asked Questions
Get answers about the New York Child Victims Act and what it means for survivors of child sex abuse. Attorney Thomas J. Mortati is here to answer the most frequently asked questions about the new law, who it helps, what it’s like to file a claim, and more.
So what is the Child Victims Act in New York? Well, New York passed the Child Victims Act into law on February 14th of 2019 after a decades-long battle to get this law passed. And what this law did, was it allowed those victims, really survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose claims had long since passed through the expiration of the statute of limitations and allowed them an opportunity to now file those lawsuits against not only potentially the perpetrators of that abuse, but more importantly, the institutions that harbored and allowed those perpetrators to commit those abuses. The act was going to go into effect on August 14th of 2019 with a one-year window to August 14th of 2020, that has since been extended. So it creates a huge period, a wide period of latitude for people to bring these claims and get the justice, more importantly, the compensation that they deserve.
What is the look-back window for filing civil claims under the Child Victims Act in New York? Has this changed due to COVID-19?
So the Child Victims Act when it was passed into law, it has a look-back period, a one-year look-back period initially, and that’s been changed a little bit as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The one-year look-back period originally it was going to run from August 14th of 2019 to August 14th of 2020. Given the obvious upheavals as a result of the COVID-19 crisis on May 8th of 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order extending that first five months to January 14th of 2021. More recently on May 27th of this year, the New York State legislature passed a proposed law to actually extend that look-back period of full-year so from August 14 of 2020 to August 14 of 2021, and that is a way of getting the governor’s signature to put that into law so that it’ll be a full two years. We’re coming up to nearing the end of the initial one-year look-back period that would have expired on August 14th of 2020. And right now we do have that five months extension into January of next year with the expectation that the governor’s going to sign the new legislation extending it a full year to August of 2021.
So, what does the new law mean for childhood victims of sexual abuse? And, you know, we really think of these people as survivors of sexual abuse.
In the past, under the existing laws and existing statute of limitations, people who were subject to these unspeakable horrors could have anywhere from a one-year, to sometimes as many as five years, in which to bring their claims. What the Child Victims Act did was it did away with those previously fairly strict and tight statute of limitations guidelines, and opened that up. So, for people who are adults now, we had a one-year look-back period that, again, got extended by the governor, and looks to be by the legislature, to enable them to go back in time and renew these previously time-barred claims. Time-barred, meaning the statute of limitations had expired, and they had no ability to pursue any type of justice or compensation, as well for people, particularly children who are experiencing these unspeakable horrors today, it gives them, instead of up to maybe their 23rd birthday, they have up to their 55th birthday now in which to bring a claim against not only the perpetrator, but more importantly, the institutions that allowed these things to go on, sometimes for years.
Some people asked us does Child Victims Act make it easier for the survivors, the victims, if you will, to win these lawsuits. What it does is it makes it, first of all, possible for them to even bring a lawsuit. Again, the whole point of decade’s long battle to get the Child Victims Act passed was because innumerable numbers of people had been subjected to these unspeakable horrors as children and had no ability to do anything about it because the statute of limitations had expired. What it does is it allows these people now to come forward and to bring their claims in a court of law and have them adjudicated honestly and most importantly, justly. In civil cases and these are civil cases, these claims that are brought into the Child Victims Act, liability or false, that’s held to a different standard than in a criminal case. People may think of criminal cases being beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil cases is very different. It’s by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence or more simply is it more likely than not that the claims being brought by that victim are true. And in that sense, it is a much easier standard or burden of proof for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse to make these claims and not only make them but win them.
So people ask what steps they need to take to protect their legal rights under the Child Victims Act. The first and most important thing that they can do is go and consult with an attorney, specifically and particularly an attorney who’s experienced in the Child Victims Act, who understands the Child Victims Act, who knows how to bring lawsuits against not only perpetrators, but more importantly, the institutions, whether that’s a church, Boy Scouts, a school, a gym, whatever the case may be. Most important thing, consult with a lawyer and do your homework and make sure it’s a lawyer who has experience in these cases under the Child Victims Act.
How does the Child Victims Act change the rights of those who survived sexual abuse as a child?
So, how does the Child Victims Act change the rights of child victims or survivors who were subjected to sexual abuse as a child? The most important thing is that this law now allows claims that were previously time barred. Allows victims who had claims that they couldn’t bring before because of the expiration of the statute of limitations, an ability to file those lawsuits. In addition to that, those people who are minors now have the ability up to age 55 to bring a claim for abuse that’s happening today, tomorrow, next year for that matter, up to age 55 when in the past it could be limited to the age of 23.
So, what are the rights of an adult victim of abuse under this Child Victims Act?
The most important thing that the Child Victims Act, most important right it gives those people is the look-back window. Initially, it was a one-year look-back window that they could reopen or renew these claims that were time barred. That has since been extended to January of 2021 and looks to be extended even further. But that most important right that was given back to those people was the ability to file a lawsuit, to seek justice, and seek compensation.
So, we’ve talked a little about the civil side of the Child Victims Act. Well, how does it affect the criminal side? And it does affect the criminal side. This act has also given tools to law enforcement now to also go backwards in time, investigate and potentially prosecute these perpetrators, people who committed these unspeakable acts sometimes 20 years ago, sometimes longer, to go back and potentially get a perpetrator off the streets today. What it’s done is that it’s allowed victims of childhood sexual abuse up to their 28th birthday to potentially bring felony charges, complaints against the perpetrators of sexual abuse and up to their 25th birthday to bring misdemeanor claims or charges. Now, those again would have to be investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted by a district attorney’s office. But previously if that time period or that birthday had passed, they couldn’t do anything about it. Now if it hasn’t and it’s been extended, they can go and bring those claims to law enforcement, have them investigated and hopefully, take perpetrators off the street.
Does the Child Victims Act include all sexual abuse of children, or only certain types of cases?
So a question that gets asked sometimes is, does the new law affect all cases of sexual abuse of children or only certain types? First and foremost, the new law protects all children who have been sexually abused at any time. This is for children who are sexually abused today, it was for children who were sexually abused 20 years ago or 30 years ago in relation to the lookback window.
So should a victim of child sexual abuse hire an attorney and what things should they consider when making the decision to hire an attorney?
So, first and foremost, yes, you should hire an attorney. Hiring an attorney specifically in this area of childhood sexual abuse is a very important decision, just like in any civil case. But in this one, in some ways, it’s more important than others. This is a very personal decision that the survivors of childhood sexual abuse make in whether or not they’re gonna come forward.
So the most important thing they can do is do their homework. Research the lawyers they’re looking to talk to, find attorneys who are experienced attorneys, or experienced litigators, also who have experienced under the Child Victims Act in prosecuting these claims against perpetrators and institutions. Some of the folks who are thinking about bringing these claims have concerns: Do I have to open up my whole life? Do I have to tell everything that’s happened to me? How is this going to play out? Again, this is an incredibly personal decision for something that is an incredibly personal experience that happened to them.
So in addition to doing your homework on lawyers and law firms, ultimately you want to go meet with these attorneys. You want to interview the attorneys. If you decide to pursue a lawsuit and you hire an attorney, that person’s going to be standing with you every step of the way. So you, as the person hiring an attorney for such a very personal experience, you want to make sure not only that attorney has experience not just in litigating cases, but more specifically in litigating this kind of cases.
You also want to make sure that attorney is the right fit for you as an individual, someone that you will be comfortable with, not only for the process of discussing something, like I said, very personal, something that was very, very horrific to experience, but also to make sure that you are gonna be comfortable walking every step of the way with that attorney by your side in the beginning of that case all the way to its conclusion.
So what’s the difference between a criminal case involving sexual abuse of a minor and a civil case? And which should I file? Well, first and foremost, a criminal case is prosecuted by the district attorney’s office. It’s investigated, certainly by law enforcement agencies. But that is a case that is brought by the state. So it’s typically the people of the state of New York versus the defendant in this particular case, who would be the perpetrator. A civil case is different. It’s the survivor of that sexual abuse. The survivor is the person bringing a claim against that very same defendant. There’s different standards of proof and they’re handled differently. Again, the state prosecutes claims of a criminal nature. Civil cases are prosecuted by that survivor of sexual abuse by the attorney of their choice.
They’re handled in different courts as well. Criminal cases are handled in criminal court. Civil cases are handled in civil court. And the most important thing, the most important difference between these is the burden of proof that applies. People watch shows on television and they hear beyond a reasonable doubt. Well, that’s a standard that applies only and solely to criminal cases. In the civil cases, the survivor of child sexual abuse has to prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence that it was more likely than not that their story is true, that what they are saying happened to them actually occurred, and that these people or these institutions are responsible for it. The good thing about the Child Victims Act is, people who’ve experienced this type of abuse, they can pursue both remedies. They can have law enforcement authorities pursue the perpetrator, and they can have civil attorneys pursue the institutions and the perpetrator as well, for justice, for compensation.
So people ask this all the time as a survivor of child sexual abuse: What information do I need to come forward?
First and foremost, this is a very personal decision by these individuals to come forward. A lot of them are very nervous. They’re scared about coming forward. They’ve never told the story to anyone before in their life. That can include their parents, their siblings, and oftentimes their spouses. The most important thing they can do is to come forward. All you need to do is come and tell us your story. Tell us your truth. Tell us your experience. We can then do investigation. We can then reach out to individuals who may be able to assist us in corroborating that story, that truth, getting records.
The only thing you really need to do is to make that first step and come forward to us, and tell us your story. And we can take it from there. Once you come forward, it’s up to the attorney that you hire to then work on your case, investigate the facts, pursue the perpetrator or pursue the institution, get whatever records are necessary, and pursue whatever witnesses might be necessary to prosecute and prove that claim on your behalf.
So I don’t want everyone out there in the public to find out what happened to me. Can I still come forward? Can I still bring a claim? Yes, you can. New York law provides the victims of child sexual abuse the ability to potentially bring claims under a John Doe or a Jane Doe status. You can still file that lawsuit. You can still pursue that institution. You can still pursue that perpetrator for the justice and compensation you deserve. But you can do it under a cloak of anonymity to ensure that everybody else out there doesn’t have to hear about the things that happened to you.
Alternatively, if you decide that you want to file that lawsuit in your own name, you can do that as well. But that’s ultimately up to you as the survivor of child sexual abuse how you want to proceed in that lawsuit.
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