New York Daily News
By Liz Roberts
October 25, 2021
As the leader of Safe Horizon, an organization devoted to supporting survivors of abuse, I’ve seen up close how many survivors of sexual assault have to battle against a society and a legal system that still understand too little, judge too much and frequently ask survivors to relive the worst moments of their lives over and over to even have a shot at holding the person who hurt them accountable.
The recent news surrounding R. Kelly and Bill Cosby’s cases reminds us that the burden is even heavier for survivors of color.
Every survivor faces a difficult path. Even under the most safe and supportive circumstances, it can take survivors years — or even decades — to process what happened and disclose the abuse to just one person, let alone law enforcement.
In many cases, survivors literally cannot tell anyone what has happened to them. Trauma can cause the brain to suppress or hide information in order to protect someone from feeling the full horror of what they experienced. This is a survival tactic that makes restrictive statutes of limitation problematic in holding abusers accountable.
On top of this, survivors of color face even steeper cliffs to climb.
Black and Brown survivors are less likely to be believed when they do come forward. The systemic racism that makes it more likely for a Black man to die at the hands of law enforcement also makes it less likely that a Black woman will be taken seriously when she reports abuse, even though she is more likely to experience it.
Survivors of color know full well that society often places too little value on their well-being. This means disclosure of abuse can be delayed even further. For one, there’s the lived reality of a criminal justice system that has not given people of color much reason to trust law enforcement.
Survivors might fear police officers will accuse them of lying. They might report, only to be told their story “doesn’t hold up” because they can’t remember every detail with crystal clarity. They might have had previous bad experiences with law enforcement, making the idea of sharing details of their assault excruciating.
All of these things have — and do — happen. As CEO of the nation’s leading victim assistance organization and a social worker with more than 30 years of experience, I hear these kinds of stories regularly.
Over the decades, some progress has been made. The #MeToo movement has given many survivors hope that if they tell the truth about what happened to them, others will believe them. Laws are changing slowly, some workplaces are shifting and a few high-profile abusers have been held accountable.
Those are all steps forward. But they aren’t enough.
Outdated statutes of limitation that bear no connection to the lived reality of survivors of sexual violence shut out millions of survivors from ever having a chance at seeing their abusers held accountable in a court of law.
In fact, many survivors are already shut out of the justice system before they ever feel comfortable coming forward. Other survivors who did come forward right away were failed because they weren’t taken seriously — and now they have no form of legal recourse because the statute of limitations has expired.
For those who have been shut out, we need civil look-back windows. And we need to change statutes of limitation moving forward.
New Jersey is the first state to offer a civil look-back window for survivors who were 18 years or older at the time of their abuse, and New York is considering a bill called the Adult Survivors Act that would do just that.
The Adult Survivors Act — which would give time-barred survivors a one-year look-back window to sue their abusers or the institutions that protected them in civil court — passed the state Senate unanimously last year, but stalled in the Assembly despite widespread support.
Survivors of color have even more obstacles to overcome in getting justice. Civil look-back windows would remove one of those barriers and make it possible for more survivors to hold their abusers accountable.
Roberts is CEO of Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading victim assistance organization.