Safe Horizon CEO Discusses Beginning Of 'Look Back Window' For N.Y. Sex Abuse Cases

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 14, 2019 7:17 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new law goes into effect today in New York state that will give any adult victim of child sex abuse one year to bring a lawsuit against the alleged abuser even if the statute of limitations has expired. This yearlong period is called a look-back window, and it's part of the Child Victims Act. Ariel Zwang is the CEO of Safe Horizon, a victim services nonprofit based in New York, and she's been working on this legislation for over a decade. She's here to talk with us now about it.

Welcome.

ARIEL ZWANG: Thank you.

CHANG: So can you tell us a little more about what this new Child Victims Act allows accusers to do?

ZWANG: Sure. Before this act was passed, New Yorkers had until age 23 to bring either a civil lawsuit or criminal charges against someone who had committed sexual abuse against them when they were children. The new law raises the age for criminal charges to age 28 and the age at which someone can bring a lawsuit until age 55. But what this window does is for a one-year period that begins today allows anyone no matter how old or how long ago the abuse happened to bring a civil lawsuit in New York state.

CHANG: What do you think took so long to get the political will behind this idea?

ZWANG: There are powerful and entrenched interests who know because they protected abusers for so long there will be claims against them. And these are religious institutions, schools, youth-serving organizations. They have fought for years and years under the incorrect idea that abuse victims couldn't possibly remember what happened or that somehow it's unseemly to pursue justice in the courts. But the real problem is they're worried about the financial implications for themselves.

CHANG: What had it been like to work with survivors who just weren't ready to bring legal actions against their abusers until it was just too late under the law?

ZWANG: We do know that because of the way the dynamics of childhood sexual abuse work, it can take decades for a victim to overcome the shame to realize how profoundly they were exploited or abused and to seek help. When survivors have wanted to bring actions in the court and were over 23, we've had to tell them that they couldn't.

CHANG: How does that ability help a survivor move forward?

ZWANG: What may be the most important thing to a survivor is that the abuser no longer be able to abuse other people. So by having that abuser's name now out in the public, the courts have determined that, yes, this abuse happened and it was perpetrated by this person, it may be that others will not have to suffer abuse at that person's hands. The other thing is, you know, if someone is hit by a truck, society knows and understands that they've had something taken away from them - their health, their time. Society expects the person whose fault it is to make that up to the victim. And that's operating here as well. It's a way for society to hold accountable the abusive person who stole from that child peace of mind, their emotional health, their ability to form loving relationships. And they deserve help dealing with the aftermath of all of that. It's not just the money. It's what the money brings.

CHANG: What does your organization and other groups plan to do after this one-year period closes? I mean, is there a plan for any legislation to expand that year?

ZWANG: That would be the next wave, and we are still implementing this legislative victory. But yes, next push would be to raise the age at which people could bring criminal charges beyond age 28; also to further increase the age beyond 55 after which people could bring civil lawsuits as well.

CHANG: That is Ariel Zwang. She is the CEO of Safe Horizon.

Thank you very much for talking to us today.

ZWANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.