Many New York citizens are celebrating Governor Andrew Cuomo's Feb. 14 signing of New York's Child Victims Act, some saying, "It's about time!" after a more-than-decade-long political battle between survivors of childhood sexual abuse and some of the institutions that have been accused of trying to cover it up.
The new law, which went into effect immediately, allows victims up until age 28 — doubling the prior five-year statute of limitations — to press charges for felony abuse, and up to age 26 to file charges for misdemeanor sexual abuse crimes. For civil cases, the statute of limitations has been extended from age 28 to age 50. Even better, the bill includes a "look-back window" that grants past victims of abuse a year to bring decades-old claims in civil court against their alleged abusers.
Along with most of you, I was overjoyed when I heard that these additional avenues to justice were in place, but I didn't immediately realize one ramification, and I suspect you may not have, either: that it had particular relevance to our children with disabilities. When incidents are thoroughly investigated, statistically, this group shows disproportionately higher rates of sexual abuse. Puzzling over why this should be so, abruptly I was hit by the obvious, horrifying reason.
I think you'd agree that just about any children normally have a difficult time convincing adults that a close relative or trusted family friend has been "inappropriately interacting" with them. It's my understanding that many adults initially respond by attributing these reports to vivid imagination based on some drama on the big or small screen, or just confusion by the child. Now, consider the additional vulnerability of children who are living with a communication problem, such as autism, or certain physical disabilities, or have an intellectual impairment. Sexual predators realize that they are more likely to get away with victimizing this highly exposed and frequently misunderstood population.
What may be the ultimate insult: that reports of those whose victimization is not easily remembered, but is revealed by hypnosis, use of chemicals or intense, prolonged focused questioning, sometimes are attributed to a condition called “False Memory Syndrome" (FMS). This theory asserts that, in trying to recover repressed memories of sexual abuse, the aggressive techniques some therapists use have made their subjects so suggestible that they create "memories" of events that never happened.
Some advocates for individuals who have been abused have advanced an alternate theory: that professionals find it so hard to believe that some apparently outstanding citizens could have committed such disgusting acts, the psychiatric profession created FMS to be able to discredit victims' testimonies. Apparently, there is little indisputable evidence that either assertion is the case, and I do not claim to be a professional in that field. But, being a consumer advocate, I can't help but wonder why we are challenging people’s memories, based on the alleged perpetrator’s reputation.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is CEO of CHILD USA, a research organization that seeks to prevent childhood sexual abuse and is considered an expert in the field, noted that New York has been one of the "worst" states in terms of its laws related to childhood sexual abuse. She feels that the new law marks a change for the better in the Empire State.
Personally, I'm really glad that this is one arena where we are no longer on the bottom of the heap!
Sarah K. Lanzo is the director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 284-4131, extension 200.