Victims of childhood sex abuse often aren’t ready to come forward about their experience until their late 40s or early 50s. By that time, the statute of limitations has often run out, making it too late to take any legal action against a perpetrator or institution.
With passage of the Child Victims Act at the end of January, New York state is giving abuse survivors significantly longer to sue for damages and more time to bring criminal charges. Plus, starting in August of 2019, a one-year window will open during which there will be no statute of limitations for such cases.
Penn’s Marci Hamilton, a national expert on child sex abuse and founder and CEO of the nonprofit think tank CHILD USA, helped New York Assemblywoman Marge Markey draft the original bill more than 15 years ago, and has been working ever since to push through the legislation. “This is the 11th state to pass something similar,” Hamilton says. “We’re going to find out about hidden child predators in places like schools and scout troops and on teams, as well as in many families. We’re going to shift the cost of the abuse from victims to perpetrators and the institutions that aid them.”
Specifically, the new law makes four changes. Until now, anyone who wanted to sue for abuse-related damages had to do so by age 21 for institutions and 23 for perpetrators; that’s now been extended to age 55. For filing criminal charges, the age moved from 23 to 28.
In addition, starting on Aug. 14, 2019, and running for one year, the statute-of-limitations barrier for civil lawsuits will be lifted for the many victims previously shut out of the legal process. “We have these two groups of victims, children being abused right now and those who were abused in the past. In many states, including New York, unfairly short statutes of limitations have blocked the vast majority of victims from the past from filing lawsuits or criminal charges,” Hamilton explains. “Six months from now, the New York window will open and during that period, they will still have to prove their case and provide evidence, but there will be no artificial, arbitrary deadline.”
Finally, the new law removes what’s known as the 90-day notice-of-claim provision for actions against the government, including public schools. In the past, a child abused within a school setting had only 90 days from his or her 18th birthday to come forward. That’s gone now, partially because of the Catholic Church in New York, according to Hamilton. As she explains it, the Church argued that as a private institution, it had been singled out and held to a different standard than the public schools, so state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo added language to clarify the point and make it all-encompassing.
Though Hamilton says she would have liked the age to bring criminal charges to increase even more, she’s pleased that the law finally passed. “You spend 15 years fighting the battle—really a war—and then all of the sudden, it’s good, it’s over,” she says. “For many of the survivors who have been in the trenches, it’s hard to switch gears from being under attack to getting what they’ve been asking for. There’s been a lot of emotion.”
But, this isn’t the end of such legal struggles. In all, 29 states are considering statute-of-limitations reform this year, and Hamilton intends to aid as many as possible with needed data and analysis. She’s also been working toward similar legislation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for a decade and a half, though little has passed in either place yet. She’s hopeful that a new arm of CHILD USA, the Sean P. McIlmail Statute of Limitation Research Institute, will help.
“The McIlmail family lost their son to a heroin overdose while he was in the process of trying to prosecute his priest perpetrator. He was the only person who could prosecute given the short Pennsylvania statute of limitations, and the stress of it got to him,” Hamilton says. “His parents are just salt-of-the-earth, and they have made a significant donation for us to be able to do even more in-depth research and help us improve our tracking game.”
By tracking, Hamilton’s referring to the country-wide statistics CHILD USA keeps on laws protecting children, including those on statutes of limitation. The think tank leads the movement for child sex abuse statute-of-limitations reform, in part because of Hamilton’s expertise; in 2008, she published “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children” and has been fighting for victims’ access to justice ever since. CHILD USA also monitors statistics regarding age of majority, consent, and marriage; religious liberties; and medical neglect in the U.S., with plans to look at what’s happening globally in these areas in the near future.
Hamilton, a Penn Law graduate and the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, is also passing the torch to the next generation here at Penn, through an undergraduate political science course she teaches on religion, and through a graduate-level course she’ll soon teach on public policy and the law.
All of this work is in the name of protecting children. “By the time victims are ready to say anything—the average age is 52—typically, the statute of limitations has expired and they’re silenced,” she says. “Before, the real beneficiaries were the institutions helping the predators and the predators themselves.” Now, she adds, in at least one more state, victims have power they never had before.
Marci Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founder, CEO, and academic director of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit academic think tank at Penn dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to prevent child abuse and neglect.