By David Brand
The state’s new Child Victims Act will enable survivors of sexual abuse to take civil action against their alleged abusers even if the the statute of limitations has passed. The law will allow people who have experienced abuse to file claims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred, during a one-year window that opens in August.
Experienced attorneys have started to counsel survivors on the best course of action for preparing their own cases. It’s a delicate process that involves supporting the victim while compiling the case based on events and information that may have happened years earlier, said said Jayne Conroy, a trial lawyer and partner at Simmons Hanly Conroy in New York City.
“If people believe they have a claim, they should reach out to a lawyer to understand what the lawyer’s view of what happened to them is and what their options might be,” Conroy said. “Nobody has to have everything ready next week but they have to be prepared to start talking about this with someone so that their lawyer can start to build the case.”
Conroy said she and her firm have represented hundreds of survivors of abuse in proceedings against the Catholic Church, universities and other institutions. She said “many, many” people, including several from Queens, have reached out to her law firm in the months since the Child Victims Act seemed likely to pass both Democratic-controlled chambers of the state legislature. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law in February.
Attorneys handling survivors’ cases play a unique role that is part social worker and part fact-finder, Conroy said.
“These cases are like no other cases that plaintiff counsel deal with,” she said. “They’re in an extremely emotional, fragile state. Sometimes they have never told their story out loud and maybe it helps to tell a lawyer. It’s a very emotional situation and it’s very difficult for the victim. They’re very brave when they call someone.”
The new law will enable patterns of abuse to emerge, Conroy said.
“Many perpetrators of these crimes don’t just do it once, they do it many times,” she said. “We can begin to understand how many victims there are against a particular perpetrator or defendant.”
“When people start to reach out, they see they’re not the only victim,” she continued.