Outdated Laws, Unpunished Child Abusers

By Gina Belladante (New York Times)
May 11, 2017

Beginning in 1997, and then for the next 13 years, Ama Dwimoh ran the Crimes Against Children Bureau in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, observing a theater of atrocities. Early in her tenure, Ms. Dwimoh told me recently, she handled a case involving a young man who had been sexually molested by his family’s landlord for a decade, starting when he was 5.

The abuse had come to her attention through a photo developer, who had contacted the police when he noticed unseemly images in a roll of film brought in for processing. With a picture of someone who appeared to be the victim of various predations in hand, law enforcers went in search of the boy. When they found him and knocked on his door, Ms. Dwimoh recalled, he appeared to feel he was being outed; he got sick and vomited. He knew that what had happened to him was wrong, but he had also experienced his abuser in less monstrous moments. How was the child, or even the young adult he would become, to make sense of all this, of such horrors entwined with the semblance of affection?

A search of the perpetrator’s home revealed a trove of old photographs of many other children, indicating he had been a pedophile for years. Ms. Dwimoh, who is running to become the Brooklyn district attorney, realized that if the police had never knocked, it was unclear whether the boy would have come forward soon, or ever, and if he hadn’t, how many more children would have been imperiled?

Under New York State statute as it is currently written, someone sexually exploited as a child, with rare exceptions, has only until the age of 23 to bring criminal or civil proceedings against an abuser. This is in spite of the fact that the mental-health professions, as well as the news — witness the recent accounts of abuse at Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut boarding school, or at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, that transpired decades ago — repeatedly tell us that it can take many agonizing years, often signified by anxiety, depression, addiction and other destabilizing conditions, for victims to understand what had happened to them and come forward.

In January, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, delivered strong support for the Child Victims Act, versions of which have been proposed in the State Legislature for years without receiving enough votes to become law. It would essentially do away with the statute of limitations on prosecutions of child sexual abuse, and eliminate (or, in the governor’s version, extend to 50 years) the time limit in which a civil suit could be brought. When he discussed the issue then, Mr. Cuomo, whose proposal is more expansive than the Assembly’s (which bars suits after the age of 50), described the existing law as benighted. It isn’t merely out of line with established thinking about the psychology of victims, it lags behind laws in seven other states — Hawaii, Minnesota and Delaware, among them — which now allow adult survivors more time to file for civil damages.

As the legislative session has unfolded in Albany, though, the governor’s actions have not matched his rhetoric. In response to lobbying from Safe Horizon, a victims’ advocacy group, over the past week, his administration questioned whether there was adequate support for passing the bill before the end of the session next month.

As Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who champions the bill, lamented, “Usually, when the governor wants to get something done, he is pretty effective.”

Mr. Hikind, who called the absence of any movement “ridiculous and insane,” has stood behind the measure even though, as he told me, not a single one of his constituents, who mostly come from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn, has ever called his office demanding action on this issue. Around the country, religious groups, and predominantly the Catholic church, have balked at the prospect of similar laws, claiming they could lead to so much litigation that their institutions would become bankrupt.

Last year, Assemblyman Michael Cusick, a Democrat from Staten Island who had opposed getting rid of the statute of limitations altogether, helped draft a bill that would have permitted victims to initiate civil actions up to age 28, which is like telling a 4-year-old with a 7 o’clock bedtime that on special occasions she can stay up all the way to 7:10.

Equally shocking with regard to child protection laws is the oversight of private schools. Although private and parochial school teachers in New York are required to report suspicions of neglect or abuse of children in the home, they are not required to report suspected abuse by their colleagues. This is how it is possible for teachers or administrators who have sexually abused children at one school to wind up employed at another.

While the matter has gotten some traction in the State Senate, thanks in large part to advocacy from the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, it has not been on the radar of the Assembly’s education committee. Catherine Nolan, the Democrat who leads that body, said she would consider the issue at a later date.

If the Child Victims Act, which in a future iteration might include stipulations about who is required to report abuse, doesn’t get passed, it will tell us something not only about the way politicians capitulate to religious interests, but also about the cultural pretenses we maintain around children’s safety. Laws that require sex offenders to register, or email alerts telling us how close those offenders might live to us, address the hysteria and fear surrounding the threat posed by strangers, but they do nothing to assuage the damage done by the relatives and mentors who are so often dangerous to a child’s well-being. Who are we ultimately protecting?