Attorney Jeff Dion is CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, a survivor, and nationally recognized victim advocate. Jeff comes...
Attorney Jeff Anderson is a pioneer in sexual abuse litigation and a champion of survivors of childhood sexual abuse....
J. Craig Williams is admitted to practice law in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Before attending law school, his...
As of August 14, 2019, New York’s Child Victims Act has opened a one year window allowing child abuse survivors, who would otherwise be barred from filing claims due to the statute of limitations, to file civil suits against their abuser, as well as against individuals and organizations that failed to protect them. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed the Child Victims Act on February 14, 2019, has stated that “[t]his bill brings justice to people who were abused, and rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished for too long”.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Craig Williams is joined by attorney Jeff Dion, CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, and attorney Jeff Anderson, a pioneer in sexual abuse litigation, to discuss the NY Child Victims Act (CVA), its impact, and the subsequent wave of litigation.
Lawyer 2 Lawyer: – Law News and Legal Topics
Inside New York’s Child Victims Act
Jeff Dion: What the Child Victims Act does is it puts us in overtime and it restarts that clock and creates an opportunity to expose both the predators and those institutions that were helping the predators abuse kids.
Jeff Anderson: It is a powerful and actually amazing opportunity for so many survivors to have a chance and to have some hope for a better life and a chance to protect other kids in the future.
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Well as of August 14, 2019, New York Child Victims Act opens a one-year window allowing child abuse survivors who would otherwise be barred from filing claims due to the Statute of Limitations to file suits against their abuser as well as individuals and organizations that failed to protect them.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act on February 14 earlier this year paving the way for survivors of child sexual abuse to seek justice against their abusers. As a result there have been thousands of cases filed in the New York Court System.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer, we’re going to discuss the New York Child Victims Act, its impact and the subsequent wave of litigation, and to do that we’ve got a great show for you today.
Our first guest is CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, Jeff Dion. He is also an attorney of survivor and a nationally recognized victim advocate. Jeff comes to the Zero Abuse Project after more than 20 years with the National Center for Victims of Crime where he served as Director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association. He has led efforts to reform civil Statutes of Limitation to expand justice for victims of child sex abuse.
Welcome to the show, Jeff Dion.
Jeff Dion: Great Craig, thank you so much for having me.
Welcome to the show, Jeff Anderson.
Jeff Anderson: Thank you and nice to be with you all.
Jeff Anderson: Well, to think and talk about how the Child Victims Act in New York came to be and what it all means, it requires acknowledgement of what the law has been in New York when it comes to childhood sexual abuse and the law in New York has had the courthouse doors shut to survivors in their ability to bring any legal action against either an offender who violated or raped them or an institution that gave safe harbor to that offender.
In the laws of New York for years and decades have said that you really have to bring the action shortly after your 18th birthday otherwise you are time barred, and so for years, now decades we and other survivors and advocates have been trying to reform the laws in New York and across America to give survivors an opportunity to have a voice and take action through, civil action and that means removal of the Statute of Limitations.
And in New York, I actually testified and lobbied for reform here in New York in 1988 but we were unsuccessful until now and now there is a one-year window in New York that allows survivors of sexual abuse to bring a civil legal action against his or her offender and any institution that was negligent or allowed it to occur, and that has created an enormous opportunity and an enormous challenge both for the courts and the survivors who are coming forward and those of us that are trying to help the survivors in recovery their power.
But it’s also been a historic moment in time because of the enormous population that have been shut out in New York that now see opportunity for light and hope, and the New York law mirrors similar laws have been passed across this country in different states and right now, there is hope that other states will follow the lead that has been brought forth here in New York.
Jeff Dion: It was pretty active. There were hundreds of cases that were filed and I think it’s an important development for keeping kids safe because we know that previously child predators had used New York’s short Statute of Limitations as a shield to avoid accountability and to protect themselves from being exposed.
And we know that by the average age that a survivor of child sexual abuse discloses that abuse and comes forward is age 53, but previously victims had to bring their case before they were age 21 or 23. So it’s really important to know that predators knew they didn’t have to keep kids quiet forever just long enough to run out the clock and what the Child Victims Act does is it puts us in overtime, and it restarts that clock and creates an opportunity to expose both the predators and those institutions that were helping the predators abuse kids because it’s really hard outside of the home for a child molester to abuse kids and get access to kids without help.
And they get that help from the institutions that hire them as employees or bring them on as volunteers and that’s why these otherwise well-meaning institutions can no longer be oblivious to the fact that there are predators that are intentionally trying to infiltrate their organization for the purpose of getting access to kids. And so, if we’re going to keep kids safe, everybody has a role to play and New York has joined part of a national movement to hold people accountable that’s going to make kids safer.
Jeff Dion: I don’t think there’s any magic about that number but I think oftentimes people have to go through certain stages of life to recognize how they were harmed. Sometimes, survivors don’t come forward until they have children that reach the age that they were when they were abused or they see a niece or nephew reach that age and they go to their soccer game and see oh my gosh, Mr. Johnson is still coaching like I have to say something. I can’t let this happen to someone else and so usually that act of speaking out is an effort to protect kids and to keep it from happening to anybody else.
Sometimes, it takes that long for people to recognize how they were impacted by the abuse. We know that survivors have an increased incidence of substance abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems, whether it’s anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress, and sometimes, they need to go through a couple adult life cycles where X, whatever the problem is, keeps popping up and disrupting their lives.
And then finally they think maybe I have to go see someone to get some help for that problem and when they do and their therapist says well I think this is related to the sexual abuse you suffered as a child, for many survivors the reaction is well, I always knew uncle Billy did that to me but I never knew that this stuff happened as a result.
There’s a number of different stages for survivors where that can reignite those traumatic memories. The first is when they’re at an age when they realize that what happened to them counted, that really counted as childhood sexual abuse.
And then sometimes it’s later when they recognize how they’ve been harmed by that and I think all of those things coming together because these are often latent injuries that don’t manifest themselves until adulthood, that there can be a real delay and that’s why it’s so important that we meet victims where they are and be ready to hear them when they’re ready to come forward.
Jeff Anderson: Well to the question of what really motivates or causes a survivor a victim of sexual abuse especially by authority figures to come forward, the reality is that that is a crime against a child by an adult that is done in secrecy, and as a result, the victim survivor suffers in secrecy, rarely able to report it to anybody even recognize it, unable to recognize it even as abuse. Thinking that it’s love, special attention coerced into to believing that it’s okay or they’re at fault or they will get in trouble if they tell.
So as a result that child, the survivor suffers for years in silence alone without reporting the crime as a crime to anybody or reporting it simply as having had sex with or an affair with X, Y or Z.
And so the reality is that childhood sexual abuse is the most under-reported and under-disclosed crime of all the crimes that are ever committed and rarely is it reported contemporaneous to the abuse especially by authority figures and people in position of authority.
And as a result, it’s not disclosed or reported to anybody until decades later and that’s why the majority of the population with which we work now in New York and across this country who have been abused by authority figures, clergy, coaches, teachers and the like are average age closer to 50 than they are 15.
And the reason is they weren’t able to be disclosed or they weren’t able to be believed or they weren’t able to recognize it as abuse or if they did, there was nobody that was willing to listen and/or do anything about it, because the abuser was somebody in a position of authority and prominent in the community as a priest or some other prominent powerful figure and nobody wanted to believe them.
So as a result, most everybody who has been sexually abused has suffered for a variety of reasons are now known and understood in silence and the Child Victims Act in New York gives them now that chance to have that voice, to find that voice, to share that secret, and to take some action to do something about it and when they do and disclose and take this action as the law allows what they are really doing is making a reclamation and declaration of their own power, because when they were sexually raped, abused and violated, it was more about power than sex and the betrayal of that power.
And taking and making this declaration and taking some legal action even if it is anonymously as a Jane Doe or John Doe is still a reclamation of power and a path to recovery of power and that’s what the Child Victims Act and the new law allows survivors to do.
So it is a powerful and actually amazing opportunity for so many survivors to have a chance and to have some hope for a better life and a chance to protect other kids in the future what they never have had because by coming forward and bringing an action predators, rapists, molesters in positions of power and trust are exposed and thus other kids once they are exposed are protected from further harm, and that is the first and a primary public purpose that gets served by the Child Victims Act.
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Well, Jeff Dion, as I was listening to Jeff Anderson’s response to the last question, a lot of what he was saying also sounds like the #MeToo and Time’s Up Movement. Does that tie into this Child Victims Act at all?
Jeff Dion: I think it certainly does. I think we as a culture as we hear survivors stories from the #MeToo Movement where adult survivors of sexual assault come forward decades later and talk about their inability to come forward at that time, how they didn’t think they would be believed, how the person who abused them threatened them or they thought their career would be harmed if they came forward.
And at that time, I thought these are adults and so and I certainly understand all of that and if people will understand why these adults couldn’t come forward then certainly they have to understand why children aren’t able to come forward for decades.
But I think we are creating and moving closer to a culture of disclosure and accountability because both of these crimes; adult sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse, are crimes that breed in secrecy and where we can draw light and attention then we can have an opportunity to stop it because people know they won’t be able to get away with it.
Jeff Anderson: Well, the question how are organizations responding to the Child Victims Act is really with across the board requiring the organizations to now face a reality they have never had to, and when we talk about organizations, we have to acknowledge that each organization to this point in time has dealt with this with varying degrees, some with more enlightenment and others with the dimension of denial.
And the ones that have been the most powerful in denying have been the ones the most frequently sued because they haven’t done a clean up to this point in time. And those would rank at the top of that list to be the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, not the church which is the community of faith, but the hierarchy, the top officials that run the Roman Catholic Church from the Vatican to the bishops, they have operated in denial about them being the source of the problem of childhood sexual abuse and them making choices time and time again to conceal it and then deny it again at time and time again.
And it is Roman Catholic Church hierarchy that lobbied most aggressively against the Child Victims Act in New York. They are required to do public filings for lobbying. They spent over $10 million lobbying against this law in New York alone.
They also are aligned and ranked with other organizations that have operated in denial, and that have failed to clean up the way they could have and the way they should have and also most notably in second unsorted list is the Boy Scouts of America who have kept secret files called Perversion Files of all the Scout leaders that they have removed for childhood sexual abuse that they kept them secret and those files were kept from 1944 to the present or more recently.
And so, we have begun a major legal offense of not only against the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy across New York have ensued all the Catholic Bishops in New York, now 262 cases on file. Today, we launched a major offense up against the Boy Scouts of America who have kept these files many of them secret as we speak and many of those offenders unknown to the community. So we’re doing a major excavation and legal initiative against the Boy Scouts of America, because they have not come clean with what they knew and they have continued the peril.
Other organizations that have been on the other end of the spectrum that have been more proactive and progressive more open where management has been not all mail run and secretive and some of the religious organizations that have become more open are the Protestant denominations where the power is vested at the local level where they include women and are open and do training and engage in supervision are to be given credit and other use of serving organizations realizing the peril have also been.
But as a result, a lot of the organizations you see the focus of litigation is not because the lawyers or the survivors or the advocates are picking on the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, or picking on the Latter-day Saints, or picking on the Jehovah Witnesses, or picking on or targeting the Boy Scouts of America is because those organizations have been in denial and deceiving the public into believing they’ve done a cleanup when they have it.
And so the organizational response to this passage of this law that now shines a spotlight on their practices and will force change as we speak has been largely denial and not believing that has happened and they’re bracing now for serious excavation and litigation.
And there’s now a year in which survivors have an opportunity to act and the organizations will have time to respond and the less responsive they are, the more heat they will feel through the power of the survivors’ voices and the opportunity given them under the law.
Jeff Dion: Well, the first thing that a good victim-centered trauma-informed lawyer should do when they’re called by a survivor is to tell them that they believe them, and that we often tell lawyers that when someone who has been victimized, their trust has been taken from them.
And so people who are traumatized are often skeptical and not trusting because that trust has been violated. And so when clearly a lawyer has to ask questions and we tell them when you ask a question, let the survivor know why you’re asking that question because otherwise you don’t want the survivor to think well you’re asking all these questions, don’t you believe me. So we want to reinforce with the survivor that they’re believed and that this wasn’t their fault.
Next, we are going to want to try and find out where the abuse happened, when and do they know the name of the abuser. Sometimes, it might be as loose as it happened in the sec — when I was in the second grade at Sandy Spring Elementary School and I don’t know his name but he was the janitor and we just called him Mr. Bill.
Sometimes, that’s enough to be able to build a case and for a lawyer to investigate and find out and go back in the yearbooks and find out well, this survivor certainly was enrolled in the second grade at the school at that time and look, there’s this custodian named William Robinson, who they could have called Mr. Bill and then show the survivor that picture is this the man who did that.
And then the investigation starts, because what we often find is that institutions knew about it, and covered it up. When victims come forward, they often tell victims well you’re the very first person who’s ever said anything about this, and so we never knew about that before.
But once you get into discovery and you start requesting documents and pulling files, we found out that they were on notice about that previous behavior of that predator and they didn’t take action to keep kids safe.
And so, when everyone says oh, we can’t open up the Statute of Limitations because the cases are old and witnesses have died and the evidence isn’t there, usually when these cases are won, the evidence is in the defendant’s own files that show that they knew it at the time.
But another part of this is preparing survivors for litigation which is not fun, can be a difficult, complex, confusing, and often callous process, which is why it’s so important for their attorney, their champion to be victim-centered and trauma-informed, to help predict and prepare for victims what this process is going to be like and that it could take years.
But another important thing to tell survivors is let whatever is going to happen in the justice system, whether it’s the civil system or the criminal system, let that play out on sort of a parallel track and you can be involved in that. But don’t invest yourself in that outcome.
For so many survivors they think I’m just going to get through that trial whether it’s criminal or civil and then when that’s over then everything is going to be okay, and that can take years and then when that happens, even if they get a good outcome in the case that they find gosh, I don’t really feel any better.
And so, that’s why we encourage them that they’ve got to work on their own healing at the same time. They can’t wait for healing and accountability to come from outside. They’ve got to work on that themselves so that they can live their very best life. And this is the way that attorneys can help guide survivors through that justice system.
Jeff Dion: These cases are resolved either through a settlement or a trial and in all the states where windows been opened, in California, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii, there’s been not one unsubstantiated case that’s been filed in a civil window.
And so, these cases are generally resolved in a way that’s beneficial to the victim and it’s important for survivors to know that they have an opportunity to come forward and that they should talk to a lawyer, who is experienced in this area and find a lawyer that they’re comfortable working with and that’s how we’re going to create change.
Jeff Anderson: Well, my final thoughts are this, for 37 years, I and the colleagues I’ve been working with have had the privilege and the honor of having survivors call us and share a painful secret with us and for 37 years, we’ve embarked on a journey, a shared journey to do what we can to accomplish three things together.
And the first is to make sure we protect the privacy of the survivor that calls us and assure him or her that we can embark on legal strategies to protect his or her identity and use Jane Does and John Does if we go to litigation.
Second, we also work on not only preparing them for litigation but preparing them for actually the creation of a support system, so that their secret is no longer are carried alone and develop a support system so they can begin a journey of recovery of their power and recovery from trauma as a child. Sometimes, that happened decades before.
And then the third thing we do is work on a strategy in which we can expose the real risk, whether it’s past and somebody that is dead that did it, but we know that there are others out there that need that that truth to be known or a current peril that we know exist in the community or a practice that exists.
And we then develop a strategy to expose the offender and the risk in the community and/or the institution that chose to do it and that oftentimes means engaging the media at the same time protecting the survivor.
So we engage in a legal strategy that also requires us to put light and heat on the risks that are in the community knowing that the journey that we’re sharing with these survivors, through litigation and by bringing these civil claims, we’re doing something today to protect kids tomorrow.
And that’s what gives us great hope and great promise for a safer community through civil litigation and on the shoulders of this and the courage of the survivors that are coming forward and sharing their secrets and then that there’s great hope and there’s great promise and it’s a great journey to share.
Jeff Dion: Great, thanks for the opportunity.
Jeff Anderson: You’re very welcome.
I’m Craig Williams. Thanks for listening. Join us next time for another great legal topic, when you want legal think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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