The Architect of the Adult Survivors Act Talks About Bringing Justice and What’s Next

The Architect of the Adult Survivors Act Talks About Bringing Justice and What’s Next

The Architect of the Adult Survivors Act Talks About Bringing Justice and What’s Next

The Adult Survivors Act opened a one-year window for people who suffered sexual abuse to bring civil suits against their abusers—and nearly 3,000 people did so.

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Before Donald Trump faced 91 felony charges and the likely loss of his New York state business licenses in a massive civil fraud case, his first real taste of justice came when a jury found him liable for sexually abusing, and then defaming, the writer E. Jean Carroll last May, and awarded her $5 million. The law that let Carroll sue Trump for an assault she said happened in the mid-1990s was the Adult Survivors Act, which opened a one-year window for people who suffered sexual abuse to bring civil suits against their abusers. That window closed last week.

So it’s fitting that Trump bid adieu to the law on his failing Truth Social platform on Wednesday, pointing to two prominent New York Democrats who were also sued under its provisions.

“I hope that Mayor Eric Adam’s [sic], Andrew Cuomo, and all of the others that got sued based on this ridiculous law where someone can be sued decades later, and with no proof, will fight it on being totally unfair and UNCONSTITUTIONAL,” the disgraced former president ranted. (Spoiler alert: It’s not unconstitutional.)

Indeed, Adams and Cuomo were sued under the law’s provisions, but unlike Trump, they have not yet been found liable, and may not be. That’s how it works, the law’s original sponsor, Assembly member Linda Rosenthal told me. “You still have to go to court,” she said.

I spoke to Rosenthal the same day Trump spewed bile about the law she cosponsored with state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal. The pair, and others, are assessing the way it worked—it led to almost 3,000 lawsuits—and whether its provisions should be extended. Our conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

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So obviously Donald Trump is the most famous target of the Adult Survivors Act—and other prominent people include not just Adams and Cuomo, but also celebrities like Sean Combs [who settled with his accuser last week], Harvey Weinstein, Mike Tyson, Russell Brand. They get the headlines. But I wanted to talk to you about less-well-known targets. The New York Times reported there were 479 suits related to abuse at Rikers Island, at least 300 against New York hospitals and health systems. What else should people know?

I’ve gotten media inquiries about, how come, at the end, you got all these celebrities? That’s not up to me. And also, if the complaints are brought against [public] agencies, they have to be filed in the court of claims. And over the year, there were actually more filed in the court of claims than in the New York Supreme Court. At last count, there were 1,696 in the court of claims and 1,555 through the Supreme Court. That’s a really interesting aspect of it. I think that’s why some people in government were wary of this—that so many state and city agencies would be on the hook.

We’ve heard stories about terrible incidents in Rikers and other prisons and jails, but they were just stories. This has provided a venue for people who feel they were sexually assaulted or abused under city or state care. We’re going to find a lot of instances that will change practices in those facilities.

Do you have examples of policy change? Or is it too early?

Not yet. I’m pretty sure I will going forward. What I’ve heard more recently is people calling and saying they missed the deadline. I certainly think once we get more details about hospitals, or foster care, we’ll have our work cut out for us in terms of changing practices and changing standards. People have to know they will be held accountable. That’s why we had this look-back window: We didn’t want abusers to say, well, if they haven’t sued me by now, I can keep doing what I’m doing. With this they can’t.

The fact that people say they missed the deadline is sad. I’d heard about the law, but the first I really learned about it was when Carroll brought her suit against Trump. I think some people didn’t know about it, or certainly didn’t know about the deadline. So what are you thinking about going forward?

All of this started with the Child Victims Act [which Rosenthal cosponsored], and at that time you had the Catholic Church and others fighting tooth and nail, it took 14 years. But in the end, most legislators voted for it—because most people support these laws. I think through that process, people learned about trauma, how people process it, that it can take 20 to 30 years. Victims—survivors—deserve that chance to cope with it and try to take some action.

Then there were some people, maybe fresh out of law school, who said, well we have statutes of limitation for a reason. And we do. But we have exceptions. And should there be a statute of limitations for sex crimes? In 2006 we removed the statute of limitations of rape in the first degree. We extended the statutes for rape in the second degree, for child sexual assault, but there are still limitations. And should there be? You know, with Agent Orange [a chemical used by US forces in the Vietnam War that not only killed Vietnamese people but caused cancer and death in American soldiers], we extended the statute of limitations. So what rises to the level of consideration to extend those statutes?

Certain types of harm aren’t understood right away—whether it’s Agent Orange’s effects, or the effects of rape and trauma…

Right, and who wrote all these laws? Mostly men. Now that we have more women in the system, and women are more likely to be victims, maybe that will change.

Some people have said, what about the rights of the accused, after all those years?

Obviously we care about the rights of the accused. The accuser still has to go to court and prove it—I mean, you can proclaim it, but this actually provides a fairer atmosphere for those accused to redeem themselves.

There are disingenuous claims. But I believe the majority of them are valid, from all the survivors I’ve talked to over the years. You’re not going to go through the trauma of re-explaining your case, and getting evidence, if you don’t have a good reason.

So what are you planning going forward?

I’m discussing it with my colleagues, activists, advocates. Should we add another year? With the Child Victims Act we did that, and in the last year there were another 11,000 cases filed. In this case, we’re still getting calls: I didn’t know about it at all, or I didn’t know there was a deadline, or the deadline snuck up on me. For a lot of people, just coping with it is a lot. So the question is, should we extend it another year? Or should we do it permanently? Nothing is decided yet.

Do you have a preference?

Not right now. I do have a bill to remove the statute of limitations on child sexual assault—perhaps there should not be one, especially for children. But then we got caught up with passing the Adult Survivors Act. But that’s still on the table as well.

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