By Fabio Cotza (New York Times)
June 12, 2017
I was only 9 years old when my landlord’s teenage son led me into the basement with the promise of new toys. Instead, he forced me to touch him. He made me do things my young body and mind weren’t prepared to do. I distinctly remember how the damp floor and walls smelled of mildew, and how cold it was. I begged him to stop.
He said he would call me a “faggot,” and warned that his father could kick my immigrant family out of our apartment if I ever told anyone. Terrified, I kept silent.
But the memories tormented me every single day into adulthood. One night, I wrote my goodbye letter to the world and swallowed a bottle of pills.
My suicide attempt failed — luckily. But I decided that after 20 years of silence and fear I had to face what happened to me. I was 28 when I finally told someone that I had been sexually abused. But the law told me that I was five years too late to seek justice.
That’s because, in my home state of New York, many survivors have only until age 23 to come forward and file charges against their abusers, thanks to a five-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes that begins at age 18. This is one of the narrowest windows in the nation.
As a survivor, my hope is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Senate will remedy this. They should follow the lead of the State Assembly, which on June 7 passed the Child Victims Act, a bill that would extend the time victims have to bring a case.
Among other changes, it would give victims like me, who are 23 or older, and whose claims are banned by the current statute of limitations, a one-time, one-year window during which we would be allowed to file civil charges against our abusers.
Discouragingly, in April, State Senate Republicans not only refused to hold a committee vote on a version of the bill, they moved it to a separate committee, avoiding further debate and a vote.
“The State Senate spat in the face of survivors,” said the sponsor of the bill, Senator Brad Hoylman. It’s now time for Governor Cuomo and the State Senate to join the Assembly in negotiating a final bill that protects children, provides justice for survivors and holds abusers accountable.
I know all too well that reporting memories of childhood sexual abuse can be extremely traumatic, and that it often takes years for survivors to feel safe enough to come forward. Opponents of legislation that could offer survivors access to the legal justice they deserve would have us believe that survivors’ memories are fabricated, or misremembered, to defame the accused. But these are worn-out arguments that are used to justify outdated laws that protect abusers from any accountability and completely ignore reality.
To be sure, in some cases, the passage of time will mean memories are unclear and evidence is insufficient. That should be for prosecutors and courts to decide on a case-by-case basis, as they do in most other matters that don’t involve sexual assault.
It’s unjust that, for those of us who can put the necessary pieces together to bring forward a case after years of debilitating silence, the law tells us, “Sorry, too late!” based on an arbitrary number of years.
Further, as the former prosecutor Linda Fairstein has said, in many cases, there is actual evidence. “Predators — just like in film and crime novels — often keep souvenirs to revisit the excitement of their actions,” she has said. Not to mention, years later, one survivor’s story can encourage others to come forward with additional evidence that strengthens the case.
We ask survivors who want justice to expose their deepest scars when the wounds and fear are often still fresh. We expect them to tell perfectly linear, articulate stories of their abuse, knowing that trauma can make this impossible. Then we rob them of the opportunity to seek justice when they are ready to seek justice and have the evidence to prove what they endured.
There has been some progress. In Florida, there are no statutes of limitations for abuse that occurred when a victim is younger than 16 years old. Laws including offering survivors retrospective windows of time to file expired civil claims have passed in California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota, just to name a few states. But there are victims all around the country, and other states should follow suit.
We owe survivors more time to pursue justice. Abusers should not be able to run out the clock. Not in New York. Not anywhere.
Fabio Cotza is senior director of Safe Horizon’s Bronx Child Advocacy Center, which assists child victims of sexual abuse.