FULTON — The number of sexual assault lawsuits filed around New York continues to climb as last week commenced a one-time look-back window for victims, and local abuse survivor advocates say more reforms need to take place to prevent sex crimes from occurring in the first place.
Wednesday, Aug. 14, marked the start of the Child Victims Act’s (CVA) one-year litigation period for survivors of sexual abuse to prosecute crimes with statutes of limitations that would have expired under previous state law.
Roman Catholic institutions, the Boy Scouts, schools, hospitals and the estate of late financier Jeffrey Epstein are among the targets as the number of lawsuits is expected to stretch into the thousands.
Oswego County child and sexual assault survivor advocates say actions under the CVA will illuminate years of hidden pain, but preventing abuse from happening in the first place should be the focus of legislative and institutional officials.
In an interview with The Palladium-Times last week, Karrie Damm, executive director of Fulton’s Child Advocacy Center (CAC), said the CVA offers survivors a long overdue chance to be heard and execute justice.
“[The CVA] is about survivors finding their voice and finding justice because for so many years, they’ve just been living in the shadows,” Damm said.
“Accountability measures” need to be instituted to ensure the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts function as safe assets to society, Damm said, a goal those institutions have every reason to achieve on their own without the threat of legal action.
It’s important to “shift the conversation,” Damm said, away from “how many billions of dollars will come out of lawsuits?” to “what are we going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
“When you starting talking about it from a financial perspective, you lose the fact that there were people out there who systemically tried to cover up the abuse of these children,” Damm said in an interview with The Palladium-Times on Thursday. “For me, finances aren't the point. The Catholic Church is a beautiful thing and the Boy Scouts are a wonderful thing and their leaders should be interested in making the necessary changes.”
Signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February, the CVA opens a one-year window for child abuse survivors up to the age of 55 to file civil suits against their abusers and the individuals and institutions that failed to protect the survivors. Previously, child abuse offenses could not be prosecuted five years after they were alleged to have taken place, and civil suits had to be filed within three years from the victim’s 18th birthday.
Additionally, the act increases the amount of time during which perpetrators of sexual abuse can be held criminally accountable and eliminates the requirement to file a claim for sexual offenses committed against a minor.
“This is one of the most promising days in the child protection movement in America because we have seen the Child Victims Act open up so many opportunities for truth, for child protection and for the recovery of powers by the survivors,” Attorney Jeff Anderson of Anderson and Associates said at a Thursday press conference in Syracuse, where he briefed reporters about his firm’s ongoing efforts to prosecute 262 sex crimes just in the state’s Roman Catholic institutions.
Cynthia LaFave, Anderson’s partner in a statewide effort to hold organizations criminally accountable for negligence in exposing children to sex offenders, told reporters at Thursday’s press conference that her firm of LaFave, Wein & Frament has spent the past several months consulting sexual abuse survivors on their legal options under the act. The chance for survivors to open up about their traumatic pasts, many of them for the first time, according to LaFave, has effectively “released them from the prison of silence,” and she expects the number of those who seek legal counsel will proliferate as scandals become more widely acknowledged.
“These survivors, with the courage and the ability to now speak, are coming forward and changing the entire horizon of our world,” LaFave told reporters at a Thursday morning press conference. “They are protecting not only the children who are alive today, but the children who will be in our world for generations to come.”
One further measure advocates say could make a difference is “Erin’s Law,” which would require schools to integrate abuse prevention training in their academic curricula, and organizations should also independently make changes that mitigate the chances of abuse taking place, advocates say.
Child victim advocates are demanding lawmakers take another look at Erin’s Law, which would require schools to teach kids from kindergarten to eighth grade about recognizing and reporting instances of abuse. Passed by 37 state Legislatures, including New York’s on June 20 in a 143-1 vote, the bill, stuck in committee since 2011, would go a long way to prevent abuse in the future if signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Karrie Damm said.
“Even though we can talk about these huge institutions that didn’t protect them, we also have to have those institutions say, ‘we’re not going to do that anymore,’” she said. “There are pedophiles out there that seek to insert themselves and will exploit institutions at their most vulnerable points.”
Located at 163 S. 1st St. in Fulton, the CAC is a nonprofit organization that works with local organizations, law enforcement, prosecution, child protective services, medical providers, mental health providers and victim advocacy professionals in Oswego County to protect and serve child victims of sexual and physical abuse.
“We have certified facilitators who bring resources and training to individuals and their organizations for ways to prevent these kinds of things from happening,” Damm said. “I think that they should be training themselves, and they should be looking at areas of vulnerability.”
For example, organizations should limit spaces and times that allow for circumstances when children and adults are alone, and there should always be at a minimum two adults with a child at any given time, Damm said.
“I think that sends a message to pedophiles that whatever you got going on your head, that’s not going to happen here,” she said.