Op-Ed | Survivors of domestic violence deserve their day in court

Tired woman standing next to bedroom window.
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The first Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States was observed in 1987. October has become a month to acknowledge the impact of intimate partner violence and recommit ourselves to the fight for survivors, many of whom have been ignored and mistreated by our flawed criminal justice system. New York has an incredible opportunity to help right some of those historic wrongs by passing the Adult Survivors Act (S.66/A.648).

For too long, justice has been out of reach for adult survivors of sex crimes. Survivors have experienced horrific trauma and abuse, and many do not immediately come forward—they deserve our support when they decide they are ready.

Survivors of domestic violence, and of sexual violence, deserve a voice and the opportunity to seek justice. Simultaneously, we must hold abusers accountable for the harm they have caused. The Adult Survivors Act would help accomplish both of those goals by creating a one-year lookback window within which adult survivors of sexual assault may bring previously time-barred cases against their abusers and the institutions that harbored them.

In 2018, law enforcement officers responded to 433,340 cases of domestic violence in New York. That’s a shade below the total population of Buffalo, and only a fraction of the total number of New Yorkers suffering from intimate partner violence. On average, survivors experience 50 incidents of abuse before getting effective help. For some, that means it takes two to three years to report their partner, for others that means decades. Yet for years, until we changed the laws in 2019, New York had a statute of limitations of just one year for civil cases stemming from sexual assault.

Just one year. On average high-risk victims live with domestic abuse for 2.3 years before getting help. More than 40% of women suffering from domestic abuse are also sexually assaulted by their abuser. Decades upon decades of New Yorkers have been blocked from seeking justice in our legal system because of these broken rules and short statutes of limitations.

The Adult Survivors Act is needed to remedy this. This lookback window will open the door to justice for survivors who were not able to file civil suits within one year of their assault. 

We know the Adult Survivors Act will work: two years ago we passed the Child Victims Act, creating a similar lookback window for survivors who were under 18 at the time of their assault. More than 9,000 cases were filed during the two years that the Child Victims Act’s lookback window was open. The Child Victims Act has forced a reckoning for institutions and individuals who protected sexual predators. Abusers, regardless of the age of their victims, and those who covered for them, must be held accountable as well. We can make that happen by passing The Adult Survivors Act this session.

The good news is we’re halfway there. The Adult Survivors Act passed the New York State Senate unanimously this June. It is vital that the New York State Assembly does so as well. With 52 Assembly cosponsors, more than a third of the Assembly already supports this legislation.

We owe it to the New Yorkers who have suffered for years from sexual violence from partners or family members to pass this bill. We are set to return to Albany in January for the next legislative session. If we don’t turn the Adult Survivors Act into law, we will continue to fail the innumerable victims of sexual violence. We must do better than previous generations of lawmakers. We must step up for survivors who have suffered in silence and give them their day in court.

If you or someone you know is in danger at home or experiencing domestic violence, here are some free, confidential resources you can reach out to for help:

https://www.safehorizon.org/hotlines or https://www.thehotline.org/