Extension of the ‘look-back’ window in New York City

Last August (2019), adult victims of childhood sexual abuse were given a year-long window of opportunity to seek justice for their suffering. The ‘look-back window’ suspended the statute of limitations under the Child Victims Act to allow survivors to file their case between 14 August 2019 and 14 August 2020. This window, which has also been named a ‘window of justice’ has recently been extended by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, allowing survivors to file suit for historic claims of abuse under the Child Victims Act until 14 August 2021.

Once the look-back window was enforced in 2019 there was a significant influx of historic abuse claims, with over 3,700 cases being filed and many more being anticipated. The window has been extended with the global COVID-19 pandemic in mind; this being said, as restrictions are eased, a more rapid incline in claims being filed can be predicted. Senator Brad Hoylman stated: “…it’s clear many New Yorkers who survived child sexual abuse haven’t come forward — especially during the COVID-19 crisis which has upended our courts and economy” and that he was thankful to Governor Cuomo for “making the rights of survivors a priority”.

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic was the driving force behind this semi-permanent reform, the Me Too movement and the Jeffrey Epstein scandal also likely influenced the decision of Governor Cuomo and the votes of the state Senate (60-0 in favour) and the Assembly (135-9 in favour).

The new limitation rules will result in many of the claims being dated back to the 1950s, and with this survivors will  inevitably face difficulties with pinpointing and pursuing their alleged abuser. Responsibility is therefore being placed on organisations who were responsible for the individual perpetrator, or held a duty towards the claimant; defendants have included the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America. A question will therefore arise for such organisations as to whether they had in place appropriate safeguarding measures in previous decades, something that will undoubtedly be difficult to prove.

Michael Pfau, a Seattle-based attorney explained how for decades, he had been receiving calls from New York residents with details of their allegations of historic abuse, however he previously could not help them. This was due to the strict limitation rules in place which prevented those above the age of 23 from filing a case. Prior to the look-back window, under the Child Victims Act, victims of abuse had from 1 to 5 years from the date of their 18th birthday to file a suit. Such rules were difficult to accept by victims as it is often the case that victims of child sexual abuse find it difficult to come to terms with and thereafter report the abuse suffered until many years later.

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