By Melanie Blow
As a child, I always tried to imagine what it was like to be an ordinary citizen during a historic atrocity. As a child sex abuse survivor who spent 13 years convincing New York’s leaders to reform the state’s statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, I started to understand.
I came to understand that we live in a world where child sexual abuse is rampant, covering it up is normal, consequences are rare, and it is much easier to dismiss a child’s trauma in favor of sparing the reputation of an adult. But that’s about to change.
A lot has happened in the decade plus that it took for New York to pass the Child Victims Act, which extended the criminal statute of limitations for most child sexual abuse acts until a victim’s 28th birthday (other legislation passed in 2019 extended it further), extended the civil statute of limitations until victims are 55, and gave survivors who had already been barred from the courts one year to file claims in civil court.
Nationally and locally, we have seen child sexual abuse scandals come to light in churches, schools, Boy Scouts, youth sports, daycare centers and countless families. We have heard so many survivors tell their heart-wrenching stories.
But lawmakers were reluctant to pass laws that took into account the fact that most survivors need decades to speak their truth, making most abusers above the law. People on the street were reluctant to believe that they would ever know a sexual abuse survivor, or a child who is being abused, or an adult who committed abuse. Survivors were reluctant to share their stories.
Now, New York is making real change, with last week’s opening of the one-year look-back window. Survivors can file suit against their abuser, or against institutions that facilitated their abuse. Is this a good option for every survivor? Certainly not. Will it heal all the damage to our minds, bodies and souls that child sexual abuse inflicts on us? No.
But it is a chance to have our stories entered into the official public record. It is a chance for some survivors to hear the word “guilty,” spoken by someone with authority, directed at their abuser.
Since civil lawsuits become part of the public record, a conviction in civil court is a powerful tool to expose predators. And lawsuits against institutions will incentivize institutions to adopt the best practices that make child sexual abuse less common.
I think future generations are going to look back on our world as it was, just a few years ago, and say “How did we deny most victims of child sexual abuse access to the courts?” The world that is so familiar to us now is about to change. It is about to become more fair.
Melanie Blow is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an advocate who works with the Stop Abuse Campaign.