The recent show of support for the Child Victims Act that would eliminate time limits for the prosecution of child sexual abuse in the State of New York is to be heralded.
It is also long overdue.
The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — of which I am the executive director — is a staunch advocate, as we work each day with children and families devastated by this crime.
Their stories are as heartbreaking as they are infuriating.
A 7-year-old girl, who had a sexually transmitted disease, would not tell anyone who abused her. A skilled forensic child abuse team eventually uncovered that it was her mother’s boyfriend. The child “didn’t want to get him in trouble — the police would take him away and who would care for her?” The twisted bond the perpetrator had with this child was evident.
Other children have reported their fears and anxiety:
“I couldn’t tell anyone, I was afraid he’d hurt me or my family.”
“He said they’d put me in foster care and that no one would believe me.”
“He made me promise not to tell. It was our secret.”
These children were helped after the disclosure by therapy and support. However, the majority of children do not disclose the abuse right away, and many do not disclose for years. It’s estimated that 30% of child victims never disclose at all.
Another aspect to this heinous crime is that children are taught from a very early age to obey their parents and other adults in their life. This can include their parent’s boyfriends, their neighbors, teachers, coaches, priests, rabbis and family friends. The fact is that in close to 90% of child sexual abuse cases, family members and trusted adults are the perpetrators. It’s not strangers who are molesting children, it is people they know and trust.
Imagine the confusion, anguish and fear that this breach of trust can cause for a child. This is a very complicated dynamic.
The thought of someone sexually abusing a child is horrifying to most adults. The idea is so foreign that many adults cannot fathom that the perpetrator can be someone whom they know. Most perpetrators are master manipulators. They can often convince anyone, even at times professionals, that they do not have a problem. As many cases that are portrayed in the media have shown, the perpetrators are so convincing that parents may even doubt their own child. Perpetrators may also be very good at giving excuses, such as being intoxicated or claiming that the child “came on” to them.
Children who are sexually abused can experience a myriad of problems, including depression, anxiety, anger, aggression, posttraumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, dissociation, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and self-injurious behaviors. Unaddressed, these symptoms can continue into adulthood, affecting their physical and mental health.
Many adults who were molested as children have confided that they only wish that they had known who to go to, who to tell, to stop the abuse. Instead, shamed, afraid and embarrassed, they suffered in silence until they were old enough to get away from the abuser. One woman, because of her fears, did not disclose the abuse until after the perpetrator died. The obstacles to disclosure can be overwhelming. That’s why the current law to prosecute these cases, requiring disclosure before the victim’s 23rd birthday, needs to be eliminated.
Survivors of child sexual abuse, whatever their age, deserve the right to hold their perpetrators accountable. Bringing them to justice will also protect other children from abuse.
Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D.
Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first child protection agency in the world. She has held senior management positions at the Child Protection Center of Montefiore Medical Center (a Child Advocacy Center), the Children’s Village, and at Covenant House.