With major reforms already underway in the new session of the New York Legislature, and with both houses now controlled by the Democrats, it’s still unclear when a long-sought-after bill to change the statutes of limitations in cases of child sex abuse will be considered by lawmakers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state lawmakers and advocates for the bill all agree on one thing: the legislation will pass at some point during this year’s legislative session. The question, for now, is when.
This year’s executive budget proposal, presented Tuesday by Cuomo, includes a nearly identical version of the bill pushed by state lawmakers last year.
It would raise the criminal and civil statutes of limitations in cases of child sex abuse to ages 28 and 50, respectively. It would also enact a one-year lookback window for victims over the age of 50 to bring civil claims against their alleged abusers. That window would start after the bill becomes law.
“The Child Victims Act has been too long denied,” Cuomo said. “If you believe in justice for all, then you believe in passing the Child Victims Act.”
A spokesman for Cuomo said if a bill makes it to his desk outside the state budget, which is due at the end of March, he will sign it.
But advocates, who have been pushing the bill for years, are upset at the prospect of the bill being included in the state budget if it’s not passed before the spending plan is finalized. The budget is commonly used as a catch-all for controversial pieces of legislation each year. Gary Greenberg, a lead advocate for the bill and founder of the Fighting for Children PAC, said he wants a bill on the floor sooner.
“There’s nothing stopping the Senate and Assembly from voting and sending the bill to the governor for a signature,” Greenberg said. “I don’t support it in the budget. That’s just going to complicate things.”
The Legislature hit the ground running last week, passing a comprehensive package of reforms to the state’s voting laws and a pair of bills aimed at protecting the state’s LGBT residents from discrimination. Lawmakers are planning to pass a bill in the coming week that would expand abortion protections in New York by codifying the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision of Roe v. Wade into state law.
Those bills, like the Child Victims Act, were blocked by Republicans in the Senate for years. The party no longer has such power after Democrats gained a majority in the chamber from last year’s elections.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, sponsors the bill in the Senate. He said lawmakers could pass it outside the budget before the end-of-March deadline, but that they haven’t made any decisions on when that would be if they choose to go that route.
“Now that the Child Victims Act has not only passed the Assembly but has the support of virtually every Senate Democrat, it would not seem to be necessary to have it folded in budget discussions,” Hoylman said. “That said, I’ll be speaking to our conference leadership about how to proceed.”
Hoylman said it’s a good sign Cuomo chose to include the legislation in his budget because it showed where his starting point is with the bill. In other words, they know it has his support if they send it to him outside the state’s spending plan, assuming they don’t tack on a provision he would veto.
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, sponsors the bill in the Assembly. She said they’re still working on the exact language of whatever bill will be passed, whether it’s in the budget or approved on its own.
“We’re still looking at whether we can do certain modifications and talking to the advocates now that we have both houses,” Rosenthal said. “It’s possible some things could be adjusted.”
They’re considering changing the proposed length of the look-back window and possibly raising the statutes of limitations higher than under the current proposal, Rosenthal said. But those conversations remain ongoing. Neither Rosenthal nor Hoylman has introduced the bill yet this year, meaning it’s unlikely the legislation will pass anytime over the next week.
“We’re just examining those and trying to make sure it’s fair, but as good for the survivors as possible,” Rosenthal said.
Some advocates want lawmakers to consider setting aside money from the state’s coffers to create a special fund for victims of child sex abuse whose alleged abusers either don’t have the money to pay the outcome of a civil claim or can no longer be sued because they’ve died or relocated. An institution, like a school, may have insurance to pay for such claims, but a relative who is accused of such abuse may not have that security.
That’s the case for Connie Altamirano, whose said her alleged abuser was a relative who now lives outside the country.
“We all want a stronger bill, and we want the bill to pass now,” Altamirano said.
That’s not currently part of discussions on the bill, Rosenthal said. A similar idea was proposed last year by Sen. Cathy Young, R-Cattaraugus, but Democrats weren’t thrilled about using taxpayer funds to foot the bill for alleged abusers. Hoylman said his position on that hasn’t changed.
“There’s really no precedent for it in any jurisdiction,” Hoylman said. “I think that’s wrong on multiple levels, but at the end of the day if you speak to survivors they want their day in court and they want recognition of the truth they have lived. It’s not about money.”
Among those opposed to the bill in the past has been the Catholic Church, which has argued that the legislation has unfairly been targeted at them rather than other institutions and alleged abusers. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at one point, called the proposed look-back window “toxic” to the church.
But their position has since changed. The church supports dropping the statute of limitations for criminal cases and does not oppose raising it for civil cases either. They are also not opposed to the so-called look-back window, but they argue that a section of the governor’s proposal would exempt public institutions, like schools, from those civil claims.
“The Bishops support a Child Victims Act that is survivor focused, meaning it treats all survivors the same wherever the abuse occurred and removes the criminal statute of limitations completely,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Hoylman disagreed with their interpretation of the bill, saying that public institutions would absolutely be subject to civil claims during the look-back period. If there’s confusion going forward, Hoylman said he would support changing the language of the current legislation to ensure there is no way public institutions would be exempt.
“If there are clarifications needed, we certainly support, unequivocally, having the bill apply to both public and private institutions,” Hoylman said. “To the extent that people believe we’re targeting one set of entities and not another—that’s absolutely incorrect.”
Lawmakers will be in session for 27 days, scattered over the next two months, until the budget is due at the end of March. Hoylman said when the bill comes to the floor—and it’s a “when”, not an “if”—it has the votes.
“The bill will come to the floor and it will pass,” Hoylman said.