By Rachel Silberstein
May 6, 2019
When the Democrats retook the state Senate in November, effectively ensuring passage of the Child Victims Act (CVA), new ads for attorneys offices began appearing on airwaves, in newspapers, and on social media.
They targeted child sex abuse survivors who had been denied the opportunity to sue their alleged perpetrators or file criminal charges because of the state’s narrow statute of limitations.
The legislation, signed into law in February, lifted that statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases and created a one-year “look-back” window for old civil claims to be brought in court, beginning Aug. 14.
Before the ink had dried, “pretty much every law firm, with any kind of practice, regardless if they had experience in this particular kind of litigation” began marketing its services, said survivor and child victims advocate Asher Lovy. “Everyone wanted a piece of the CVA pie.”
Advocates say the ads may work as a public service announcement, spreading awareness of the legislation and informing victims that they may have legal recourse. But they say abuse survivors should be wary of unethical attorneys — or those without relevant trial experience — who are aggressively courting clients or dispensing inaccurate information.
“A client has the right to speak to as many attorneys as they want. If an attorney says if you don’t sign today, you may not be able to get an attorney, walk away,” said Bridie Farrell, a champion speed skater and sexual abuse survivor from Saratoga Springs.
Farrell, who co-founded the advocacy group NY Loves Kids, said she hopes survivors of abuse would not be discouraged from taking their claims to court because of a bad experience with an aggressive attorney.
“We are seeing attorneys pop up that have never been in this world, but a large amount of people I’ve spoken to are in it for the right reasons,” she said.
To counteract the deluge of ads and hard-selling tactics, advocates are working with Safe Horizon on a guide for victims with questions to ask prospective attorneys.
Tips include checking for sexual abuse representation experience and red flags to spot on an attorney’s website. It’s also a good sign if the firm has hired a victim’s advocate, according to Farrell.
Safe Horizon, which runs a national victims’ assistance hotline, will sponsor its own ad campaign this summer informing victims of the legislation and directing them to a credible resource site.
“The plan is to pull together resources to help people ask smart questions and also to remind folks that this can be an emotionally tough process,” Safe Horizon spokeswoman Erin White said.
Insurers and religious institutions had lobbied against the “look-back” window, arguing it could lead to false legal claims and bankrupt organizations. But advocates note that that has not happened in other states that passed similar legislation.
However, referrals to specific firms by advocates and child abuse advocacy organizations have drawn allegations of financial kickbacks and conflicts of interest.
Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, which advocates for tort reform, contends that any time legislation includes a retroactive window for old claims, it creates an environment ripe for unethical practices.
“This is going to be a field day for attorneys trying to swoop in and take advantage of people who have already been taken advantage in this horrible way,” Stebbins said. “The concern is that this becomes more about money and profit than it is about justice.”