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I Was Abused: Is Legal Action Right For Me?

The Child Victims Act Provides a One-Year Window for Survivors. Here's What To Consider Before Choosing to Take Legal Action.

By Sherri Papamihalis, LCSW-R
July 11, 2019

For adults who survived sexual abuse when they were a child, the choice to pursue civil or criminal proceedings is personal and should be respected. First, it is ok for any survivor of sexual abuse not to know if they want to talk about it, let alone take legal action. Let us take a moment to acknowledge that sexual abuse is traumatic and it may have had many lasting effects that you could still live with regardless of what happens in a court.

Criminal justice is not the only form of healing, and there is no guarantee for anyone who is able to initiate criminal proceedings that there will be a conviction of the abuser, and in civil court, there is no guarantee of a judgment in your favor. However emotional healing is something we all have control over.

If you are considering beginning the process of pursuing justice in the courts for abuse that happened when you were a child, here are a few considerations to be mindful of.

Why Consider Filing Now?

In 2019, survivors in New York State will have the opportunity to consider legal actions because of the Child Victims Act which creates a one-year window for people previously unable to initiate legal action because of the statute of limitations. If this includes you, here are some questions that might be raised if you do begin the legal process which you should prepare yourself for.

Why Wouldn’t I File?

It is not uncommon for people to experience new trauma symptoms when they revisit the old event or begin to talk about it. Some of these trauma symptoms can include physiological signs such as sensations in the genitals, extreme terror, heart racing, or insomnia.

I advise anyone who is dealing with sexual assault to seek an emotional support network. It is important to have someone you trust that you can speak to, this can be a friend, spouse, clergy member or relative. Because coming out publicly about your sexual abuse can be traumatic by itself, please remember to take care of yourself and have a strong support network that can help you.

Alternatives to Legal Action: Safe Horizon is Here to Help

You can consider sharing your story with anyone you feel safe with. Sharing can be empowering and can help you accept that the abuser who may have gained the trust of your family or community when you were a child – no longer has the same power over you now that you are an adult. You are your own person and you can be free of the abuser’s influence.

Speaking to a clinical professional, such as a counselor can also help. Safe Horizon’s Counseling Center works with survivors of crime in New York City. It does not matter when the victimization occurred, our staff will conduct an intake session and develop a recovery plan that works for you. You can learn more about the Counseling Center and how you can set up an appointment when you are ready.

Our Community Program staff can also work with you to review your options including legal options and they can provide counseling and referrals. Our Community Program staff can advise you of what legal options you may now have but we are not able to provide legal assistance or legal advice. Learn more about our Community Programs and how you can get in touch.

If you are outside of New York City, you can contact the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) for a referral to resources in your area, that may include counseling. Your health insurance provider may also be able to help with a referral for counseling. Another resource to help find counseling in your area is to search on Psychology Today.

Regardless of whether you are located in New York City or elsewhere, and regardless if you choose to pursue legal action or not, please remember that only you can decide what is right for you, and that may be different from one survivor to another. Whatever you decide, I wish you luck on your healing journey and encourage you to seek support and learn all of your options before taking any course of action. And remember that my colleagues and I are here to help.

  • Sherri Papamihalis, LCSW-R

    Sherri Papamihalis, LCSW-R is a Clinical Director at Safe Horizon’s Counseling Center and has been a Social Worker since 1986. She has provided counseling and advocacy to sexual abuse and rape survivors for more than 20 years. She continues to provide trauma-focused treatment to survivors of crime and also provides clinical supervision in our Counselling Center since 2008.