Beatriz Mendoza, community outreach specialist for Zero Abuse Project and a sexual abuse survivor. (Jesse Ward/for New York Daily News)
When she was a child, Beatriz Mendoza told her mother that she was sexually abused by an adult.
Mendoza remembers her mother’s response. “‘That’s not possible. How could that be?’” her mom questioned. “She really took no action,” Mendoza recalled. “I was 6-and-a-half.”
Because her mother didn’t believe her, Mendoza kept the assault to herself until she started working in victims’ assistance decades later.
It’s stories like this that New York’s Child Victims Act, which was signed into law in February, is intended to correct. The legislation, which extends the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for reporting child sex abuse, also includes a one-year, one-time-only look back window, in which victims of any age can file civil lawsuits against their abusers between Aug.14, 2019 and Aug. 13, 2020.
Advocates hosted a training seminar on the new law in a guilded courtroom in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, where attorneys, prosecutors and sex abuse survivors explained the legal changes, offered resources and answered questions. On every chair was a packet of information about the changes to the law.
“It’s like a shot clock in basketball,” Jeffrey Dion, CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit that educates communities about child sex abuse and offers survivor services, told the audience. “It’s a limited-time opportunity for victims to come forward.”
Dion understands the silencing effect that child sex abuse can have on kids all too well. He was in law school, in his 30s, when he says he was finally to reckon with the abuse he suffered as a child.
Dion said that many survivors grapple for years, or even decades, with whether what happened to them ‘counts’ as abuse.
Kids may think they were complicit in the sexual act or shrug off the abuse if they don’t have visible injuries, Dion said. “That was weird. That was kind of gross. But I’m alive. I’m not bleeding. I guess I’m okay,” he explained.
Many victims aren’t okay. Psychological ramifications like depression, anxiety and eating disorders are common among child sex abuse victims, and abuse can result in poor school performance, diminished future earnings and an increased likelihood of being sexually victimized again later in life.
Those effects can be “absolutely devastating and life-altering,” Dion said.
They’re also widespread.
In 2017, 2,158 kids in New York State reported being sexually abused, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Since the vast majority of child sex abuse cases go unreported, that number likely represents a fraction of the abuse that’s occurring.
“A large segment of the population is impacted by this issue,” Dion said, noting that it’s not just the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America that may be harboring abusers.
“Any youth-serving organization is susceptible to this.”
Shame, stigma and fear of not being believed by adults are difficult barriers for children who report sex abuse to overcome under the best circumstances. For kids from low-income areas, communities of color and immigrant children, barriers to reporting sex abuse are even higher.
Kids who are undocumented, or who have undocumented relatives, may fear an abuser retaliating against them and calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they come forward.
In an effort to make sure all New Yorkers can benefit from the Child Victims Act, his group is holding forums around the city and state, as well as partnering with Voces Latinas to releasing information about the law and an instructional video, in Spanish.
“We know there are a lot of victims out there who are still afraid to come out,” said Mendoza, who is a community outreach specialist with the Zero Abuse Project.
“When I talk to survivors, I can relate and understand the things that they are going through,” she said. “Not only am I someone who speaks their language, but I’m also someone who has been through the trauma.”
“This window is going to be important,” added Thomas Cheung, a lawyer with the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee, a nonprofit serving neighborhoods including Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens,. “Use it or lose it. You can’t lose this.