The Future of The Child Victims Act

Photo taken by Tom McCarthy

16 years. After all the phone calls, rallies, community outreach, private meetings, and media attention, the day had finally come. It took 16 years. At the New York State Capitol, victims of child sexual abuse stood in solidarity on a staircase nicknamed “The Million Dollar Staircase” holding signs: “16 years, but we did it” and “Justice always wins.”

This moment meant a lot to Gary Greenberg and his network. The Child Victims Act was now finally going to become law. The press coverage portrayed a happy ending to a long fight. For Greenberg, it is just one big step in a long journey. Long ago, he was told he’d be killed if he told anyone what happened to him, so he told the world.

Greenberg, the founder of Fighting for Children, a super political action committee (PAC), stood on the staircase that day as he watched New York legislators telling victims that the pain was over. They promised that institutions, including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts would have to face the consequences of years of tolerating and covering up child sexual abuse. It was finally time for the victims to stand up to their predators. Greenberg would turn his attention to making sure people can get what he could never get. He never got a real chance to punish his abuser.

“We are finally telling survivors ‘the state of New York and the full force of its law is behind you, and you will not be turned away,’” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the senate sponsor for the law, to the supporters. Greenberg saw Senate Majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in tears, hugging a crying victim.

Greenberg attended Governor Cuomo’s ceremony and watched him sign the bill into law on Valentine’s Day. Cuomo told the media: “This is society’s way of saying ‘We’re sorry.’”

“It was great to see it pass,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg is a fighter. He has been fighting for victim’s rights for some time. After years of battling the Catholic Church, insurance companies and a Republican senate, Greenberg saw success from his work. Greenberg, like many of the activists, is a child victim himself. He is concerned with a under discussed loophole in the legal process. He is concerned about victims who are not pursuing legal action against an institution. Greenberg was not abused by a clergy member, but just a stranger.

30 Minutes of Hell: Looking Back

In the crowded Dunkin Donuts in the New York State Capitol, Gary Greenberg tells his story

He recognized that face immediately. His name was Louis Van Wie. Those “30 minutes of hell” still live with him to this day. It was 1967. Gary was six years old. He was visiting his father, who was a patient at the now defunct Cohoes Memorial Hospital. A worker named Louis Van Wie offered to show young Gary around the X-ray room. In the X-Ray room, Greenberg’s life was changed forever. Van Wie attempted to trap and molest Gary, but Gary was able to escape from the X-ray room.

Van Wie caught him. Then he hung him upside down in an elevator shaft and molested Greenberg. Afterwards Van Wie told Greenberg he would be killed if he said anything. The 30 minutes of hell were over, but the effects would last a lifetime. He was taken back to his father and went home. His parents soon found out what happened.

“My mother did get it out of me about two months later because I wasn’t taking showers. I had gone inward and I was an outgoing kid,” Greenberg explained.

His parents then marched back to the hospital, planning to confront Van Wie. Hospital administrators wouldn’t help them. Greenberg’s parents then went to the police. They told them something that sticks with Greenberg to this day. “They said, ‘We’re not going to do anything because juries don’t believe kids.’ ”

The pain lingered within Greenberg until 1997. Van Wie’s name was plastered all over the news. He had been outed for molesting over 300 children in New York over 30 years. His picture came up on the television, and Greenberg immediately recognized the face.

The broadcast included a call for other victims to come forward. Greenberg went to the Troy police. There was one problem. About 125 of the victims, including Greenberg, were too old to pursue any charges on their own. The statute of limitation for both criminal and civil cases expired at age 23. A more recent case got Van Wie incarcerated.

“That’s what started my activism because it really burned me up that 125 of the 300 prior victims called the police when they asked them to publicly and none of them could bring charges because the statute of limitations had run out,” Greenberg explained.

He started his advocacy work in the early 2000s, when State Senator Margaret Markey started to push the Child Victims Act in New York. He got discouraged when the effort didn’t move forward, then got back to work on the issue in the 2010s, chasing down lawmakers and rallying throughout the capitol. Even as the act failed again and again, Greenberg and others persisted.

The Child Victims Act has three major components. First, it extends the statute of limitations, the legal timeline to pursue legal charges on criminal cases. Victims will now have until they turn 28 to bring their abuser to court on felony charges. Previously, the statute of limitations was 23. Criminal cases are handled by a government prosecutor, which means victims don’t pay for a lawyer.

Second, the new law extends the statute of limitations for civil charges against an accused abuser until age 55. Previously the statute of limitations was also age 23. Civil courts don’t have the same power as criminal courts. They don’t send anyone to jail. However, civil court judges can order a defendant to pay a fine or money to a plaintiff and can make decisions about one’s property ownership.

Third, the new law implements a one year “look back” window for civil cases. From Aug. 14, 2019 to Aug.14, 2020, anyone of any age can file a civil lawsuit against an individual or institution for child sex abuse. After August 2020, the statute of limitations for civil suits will be age 55.

CHILDUSA is a non-profit organization that advocates for changing the statutes for child sex abuse cases in the United States. The organization specializes in researching the laws and civil liberties of children in the United States. A fact sheet about statute of limitation window legislation notes that while it is unconstitutional to revive criminal statutes, reviving the civil lawsuits would benefit victims unable to press charges or file lawsuits.

According to the fact sheet, window legislation has three goals. First, it would identify hidden predators. Second, it shifts the cost of abuse such as the expenses for therapy and mental health treatment, from the victims to the perpetrator. Third, the law can educate the public and prevent future abuse.

Photo courtesy of CHILDUSA

According to CHILDUSA, look back windows in Delaware and California led to the filing of thousands of lawsuits. In Hawaii, Guam, Georgia and Utah, the look back period only applied to civil statutes against individual perpetrators, not institutions, and those states had far fewer lawsuits filed. CHILDUSA never found an instance of a false claim filed during a look back period.

An Insider Look at Filing a Civil Suit

Jayne Conroy is passionate about what she does. She is a partner at Simmons Hanly Conroy, and co-sponsors That Happened to Me, an initiative featured in the film Spotlight to take on institutional abuse of child victims.

Since the new law passed, her firm has been “insanely busy,” with a lot of people from New York reaching out for legal counsel. Conroy and her partners spend their days meeting with victims and hearing their stories. They identify defendants and see if they can find any correlation with any other perpetrators/defendants in other cases. They then determine if a defendant is eligible for compensation programs by an institution. If not, they will contact the defendant’s lawyers to see if it is possible to have a settlement negotiation. Conroy stresses that victims need to speak with a lawyer to find out what their options are.

Conroy explained that settlements often happen outside of court.

“It is very difficult to come forward,” Conroy explains.

If the perpetrator is a public figure, a neighborhood priest or a close family member, victims may grapple with what coming forward do to their lives. They might be uncomfortable with their parents finding out that they couldn’t protect their child. Conroy has been asked questions such as “ Do I have to meet with the [perpetrator]?” She stresses that of course you don’t have to. Filing lawsuits do not need to be a public event.

The lawsuits can also get very expensive, Conroy is grateful to be part of a large firm, as it is able to stay afloat with pro-bono work amidst large legal fees. The perpetrators are still out there, she said, and that hopefully the Child Victims Act can lead to stricter regulations on institutions as she feels they are now more accountable for who they hire or appoint into their inner circles.

Conroy did not quantify just how many people will come forward now that the statutes have opened, but Greenberg predicts somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. He added that it’s too soon to find out how many cases will be filed, as the look back window hasn’t started yet.

CHILDUSA notes in a memo on the fiscal implications of the Child Victims act that during the most recent civil lawsuit window in Minnesota, about 1,000 victims filed civil lawsuits. The organization noted that New York’s population is 3.5 times larger than Minnesota and predicted that about 3,500 people may take advantage of the window.

Greenberg is now trying to find the resources to help out victims in financial and legal trouble, especially ones who have been abused by family. Greenberg believes that people who aren’t implicating institutions are having trouble finding a law firm willing to take their case and can’t afford the filing fees on their own.

“It’s been tough for some people. A lot of people have given up,” Greenberg lamented.

The Forgotten

Patricia, who asked that her full name not be used out of privacy concerns, is in her 50s. She grew up in upstate New York. Between the ages of 9 and 15, she was sexually abused by a family member. It wasn’t until she turned 23 that the memories of it came back to her. When she told her sister and mother, they broke off contact with her. She doesn’t even know where her mother’s ashes are. When she tried to contact her family attorney back when she was 23, he informed her that the criminal statutes have expired for any legal action. She lost all hope.

In 2017, she ran into her abuser at a family funeral. She found out about the Child Victims Act and Gary Greenberg. She thought, “this is my way to out him and protect other children.” Her perpetrator is a local business owner and music teacher who works with school children.

Photo courtesy of Patricia

“You go to New York City. You Hug The Governor twice!”

She flew back to New York to see the governor sign the Child Victims Act into law. When she got home, she got to work on filing a case. She had trouble finding a law firm. Four firms turned her down. One told her she would have to pay up to $25,000 in retainer fees, with the warning that the case could cost up to six figures if it went to court. As a working class mother she couldn’t afford those fees. “It’s almost deranged to hope that I was sexually abused by a teacher or a priest,” she said. In that case, it would be easier for her to find a lawyer.

Luckily, after months of effort, Greenberg was able to connect Patricia with a willing attorney. She is now taking steps to file a suit when the the look back window opens in August.

Michelle, 50, is still having trouble finding a lawyer. Growing up in Greenville, New York, she was sexually abused by her stepfather, who eventually was convicted for it in 1986. She has the court documents to prove she was abused. She recalls her perpetrator telling police “I didn’t rape her!” even before the police told him why they were there.

She believed all the law firms would be “chopping at the bit” for cases like hers. She asked herself is all this hardship because she’s not implicating an institution like the Catholic Church? Living in California, she utilizes her “phone time” with the 3 hour delay between New York and California looking for law firms to take on her case.

“Why are all these eggs lined up and I’m not having breakfast?” she asked.

She, like Greenberg, laments that law firms are looking for the class action lawsuits, the ones going after the cases where big insurance companies would be have to pay damages and are not ready to evaluate the risks of smaller-tier abuse civil suits.

The Future: The Looming Window

Hillary Nappi is an associate at Hach Rose Schirripa & Cheverie LLP, a law firm willing to take on non-institutional cases. Both Patricia and Gary Greenberg are now clients. Nappi explains while the new law does open up the statutes significantly that it does not automatically make these kind of cases easier to bring to court. Nappi stressed that law does not lessen the burden of proof, or evidence, for a plaintiff in a civil case.

Even if a perpetrator has multiple victims, Nappi explains, a lawsuit is a totally individualized process. What one victim wants will vary from another. “The value of judgment is not always monetary,” Nappi explained. Some victims may know that they won’t get much monetary compensation, known as “emotional damages” in civil court, but still feel a duty to warn the public or their local community of who or what’s lurking out there. Others need the money.

Nappi explained that some law firms are looking for the “slam dunk” cases, or ones with perpetrators connected to deep pockets. Institutions are liable for negligence, so even if the perpetrator is poor, a plaintiff has the ability to sue a whole institution with a big payout from insurance companies if the suit is successful. Nappi used an anecdote saying “Compare this with a victim who’s been abused by their grandfather.” He’s still alive, but doesn’t have much. He’s collecting social security and he’s on disability. He doesn’t have much. A victim is not suing him because of some big payout, but rather want to expose their perpetrator. The value of judgment is not always monetary, she reiterated. Some law firms see these kind of defendants as “judgment proof”, but Nappi believes it’s still important to provide victims with closure.

Nappi notes that it’s important for activist groups like Greenberg’s to connect with law firms and pooling together their resources to help victims afford a lawyer no matter how “judgment proof” their perpetrators may be.

Greenberg believes that the state should provide a victim assistance fund for child victims. This fund could go towards their legal fees, health care and other necessities. The fund had been proposed in previous iterations of the bill, but died with the older versions. Survivors like Patricia have even offered to give her share of her prospective settlement, after the lawyers take their share, back to the victims in some kind of fund.

Greenberg is currently busy advocating for Erin’s Law along with Connie Altramino, another member of his organization. This law, named after activist Erin Merryn, would bring a “good touch, bad touch” curriculum into New York schools to help educate children in elementary and middle school to understand child sexual abuse and personal security.

The duo have plans to get support for a fund after more time has passed and the lasting effects of the Child Victims Act can be seen. “I believe the state has a right to provide for victims,” Greenberg said.

Altramino cannot go after her perpetrator, her step grandfather, because he no longer lives in the country. While her grandmother is also implicated, Altramino has been told by law firms that she has no case. Fighting for Children is currently planning on presenting the victims fund to the Albany legislature in the near future. Altramino said about the future of the Child Victims Act, “It was a great first step to protecting kids. We need to take a big second step.” Altramino did not mince words, critiquing legislators like State Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal saying “They should have put a fund with the bill.”

Greenberg explained that he is just in talks with Nappi’s law firm and says that he hasn’t decided if he plans to pursue legal action. For now him and Altramino are still active and fighting to bring change in Albany, one rally at a time.