Why Statute of Limitations Reform works, and Mandated Reporter Laws Don'tNot All "Child Protection" Laws are Created Equal
By Melanie Blow
First Printed in the Poughkeepsie Journal
Every year, New York newspapers cover child sexual abuse scandals, like the one unfolding with the Hudson Valley Council Boy Scouts. These headlines shock everyone, except subject matter and public policy experts like me. Every year, legislation to do something about the issue is introduced and often passed. And every year, more children are sexually abused.
Fixing mandated reporter laws, as state Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, is trying to do, isn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t fix the problem. Most children never disclose sexual abuse while they’re still children. Sexual abuse generally leaves few physical signs and nonspecific behavioral signs, so there aren’t a lot of red flags for alert mandated reporters. But the failure of anyone who hears a child disclose their sexual abuse, believes it, and does nothing is a heinous wrong. I cannot imagine what was going through the mind of anyone who believed former Dutchess County Legislator Michael Kelsey had sexually abused two boys but didn’t alert the authorities. But most likely the faint threat of arrest wouldn’t have stopped it.
The story of the Boy Scouts of America Hudson Valley Council is still unfolding, but since research shows offenders usually abuse child after child until they experience consequences, it is likely Michael Kelsey has other victims. The trauma these children suffer is so horrific and the manipulations of their abusers are so effective that it takes them an average of 21 years to disclose their abuse. And in New York state, survivors usually lose the right to press charges on their 23rd birthday. If a sex offender is convicted in criminal or civil court, it is a fairly simple matter to ensure that child-serving organizations, such as schools and scouts, don’t put them around kids. But according to experts, 90 percent of sex offenders never see a day behind bars. The best legislative remedy to this is the Omnibus Child Victims Act, a bill that would eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse.
New York’s Statute of Limitation bars most victims from seeking justice at age 23. This means most of the offenders get to escape consequences, stay on the street and abuse children for decades. This is not only very unfair but very dangerous, as it means very dangerous people have clean backgrounds and can legally work at schools, as foster parents, or as leaders of scout troops. It is also a significant reason why 90 percent of sex offenders never see a day behind bars.
The Omnibus Child Victims Act removes the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and allows survivors who have already been sexually abused one year to sue their abusers. These suits produce documentation to prove abuse occurred, and this documentation can be used to register abusers, thus keeping them from teaching and scouting.
Passing this bill would seem like a no-brainer, but the Republican-controlled Senate, of which Sen. Serino is a part, kept the Omnibus Child Victims Act from coming to a vote this session. The same Republican-controlled Senate has spent 10 years trying to kill this bill’s predecessor, the Child Victims Act. The bill has finally become a campaign issue, with Terry Gipson, who is running against Serino in this year’s election, pledging to support it if elected to the state Senate. The only major opposition to this bill is special interests arguing “we can’t afford to be held accountable for what we’ve done in the past”. This argument defies common sense and common decency. It makes New York a safe place for sex offenders, but a dangerous place for children. It needs to be the other way around.