NY must give child sex abuse victims more time

April 24, 2009 § Leave a comment


NY must give child sex abuse victims more time
April 22, 2009
Richard B. Gartner, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City, is the author of “Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of your Life after Boyhood Sexual Abuse.”

As the New York State Assembly considers two competing bills to extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes, astonishingly little has been said about the prevalence, effects or economic and social costs of such crimes. These factors demonstrate the urgent need for a lengthened window for justice, which will help enable victims to heal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in five American children is sexually abused. So in a classroom of 25 children, five will be victimized before adulthood.

Abusers prey on the most susceptible, often choosing children already at risk: isolated, weaker, smaller, nonathletic, disabled or from a disadvantaged minority. Victims may have troubled, addicted or physically abusive families, or be separated from their parents. They look to other adults for healing, advice and emotional support. Abusers profess to offer solace while laying the groundwork for victimization.

Common aftereffects of childhood sexual trauma include anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution, truancy, poor grades and even suicide – all of which, aside from the personal tragedy, carry a huge social and financial cost to the state.

Since predators commonly hurt numerous victims, stopping even one may protect many children from abuse. But this is impossible when the clock on access to justice runs out.

Victims are often criticized for not coming forward sooner. But this is because they usually know their victimizers, most of whom are either family members or caretakers in positions of power and trust – teachers, scout leaders, baby-sitters, coaches, clergy, camp counselors, health care professionals and others. Abusing their positions, they betray children’s trust to satisfy their own needs. This betrayal creates shaky foundations for the children’s future relationships. Frightened of closeness, they often stay isolated and distant.

Shame also silences victims, who typically minimize their trauma for decades as a means of warding off painful humiliation. They also fear disclosing abuse because they have no faith they will be believed – and with good reason. Stories abound of children being told they are inventing lies about pillars of the community or, worse, being blamed for “seducing” these adults.

Abusers also keep their victims quiet with threats of harm against the children or their families. They may be told they will be taken from their homes and put in foster care or even prison if they tell.

So they desperately try to forget what happened. Research confirms the capacity of the human brain to stop conscious recall of traumatic information. In war veterans, Holocaust survivors and even crime victims, the brains’ ability to protect itself by blocking unwanted memories is well-documented.

These memories can later be validly recalled, and false claims of childhood sexual abuse are exceedingly rare – and are often detectable. But, while any law providing a pathway to justice can be violated by frauds, it simply isn’t responsible public policy to prevent access to justice for all victims to avoid the atypical false case.

When victims come forward, institutions usually stonewall, disavow culpability and deny abuse exists under their auspices. Schools, athletic organizations, religious institutions, scouting and camping groups, and others try to insulate themselves from responsibility for the harmful behavior of people who work for them. And so, victims are betrayed again.

This brings us to the larger institution: the state. The statute of limitations for sexual abuse – five years after age 18 – is woefully inadequate. It encourages abusers to increase their silencing efforts, ensuring the victim stays quiet long enough for the clock to run out. It also gives institutions incentive to provide only temporary remedies and support – just long enough for the statute to expire.

Such a short limitation period punishes victims for their blameless role in becoming silenced, while rewarding offenders for preying on children. So it makes sense to create a one-year window in which victims can charge predators and any organizations that demonstrably shielded them, as the bill sponsored by Assemb. Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) does. People who have been disenfranchised by the statute should be permitted to get redress for wrongs done to them. The other bill, sponsored by Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), doesn’t include this key element, nor does it extend the statute of limitations nearly enough.

The statute of limitations must be lengthened until victims are old enough to face their abusers and the institutions shielding them. These men and women were abused as children by sexual predators, and then again by institutions that countenanced crimes. New York State must not re-victimize them by continuing to protect predators and institutions.

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