Lawmakers are pushing for more resources for the New York State Office of Court Administration to strengthen the system in preparation for an influx of cases with this week's opening of the one-year look-back window for adult survivors of sexual assault.
Starting Thursday, or Thanksgiving Day, adult survivors of sexual abuse can file civil lawsuits against their abusers, regardless if the statute of limitations has expired, under the Adult Survivors Act for past abuse that happened after the age of 18.
"It takes time to process trauma of this nature," said sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan. "We should all give thanks to these courageous survivors for coming forward and really changing the dynamic around these conversations about sexual abuse."
Earlier this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Hoylman's bill, which is modeled after the Child Victims Act.
This Thursday, adult survivors of sexual abuse can file civil lawsuits against their abusers regardless if the statute of limitations has expired. They'll have this chance for one year, or until the look-back window closes Nov. 23, 2023.
At least 755 formerly incarcerated women are ready to file suit, preparing to file as soon as the window opens this week and lead an effort against the culture of sexual abuse suffered in New York prisons and jails.
"In order to get your power back, your voice back and that sense of self-worth, self-esteem, self-value, is to stand up for yourself, right?" asked Donna Hylton, a formerly incarcerated woman from New York City. "It's not easy."
Hylton was incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional facility, New York's largest female prison, on murder and kidnapping charges for 27 years. She's the CEO of A Little Piece of Light — an organization that helps women impacted by the criminal justice system.
She's weighing her legal options to file a case under the Adult Survivors Act, and recounted some of her traumatic experiences behind bars Monday.
"Three months into me being there, I was approached as well by captain," Hylton said. "And so it started basically from the door."
Hylton is not one of the 755 women poised to file her case this week. She expects it will be the beginning of thousands of others who will come forward, but have suffered in silence.
The state Department of Corrections & Community Supervision does not comment on pending or potential litigation.
"DOCCS has zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment and unauthorized relationships," according to a statement from the department Monday. "The department thoroughly investigates all reports of sexual victimization, including unauthorized relationships, and retaliation against any individuals who report incidents or cooperate with those investigations. Staff have an affirmative duty to report any knowledge, suspicion, or information regarding an incident of sexual abuse or sexual harassment, and any unauthorized relationship. Individuals who violate department rules are disciplined by the department and when there is evidence that a crime was committed, DOCCS refers those cases for criminal prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by law."
DOCCS officials are working to upgrade correction officers' body-worn cameras and significantly expand the deployment of these devices, according to the department.
The department updated its Sexual Victimization Prevention and Response policies earlier this year to enhance procedures for post-incident review of cases involving sexual abuse and “unauthorized relationships,” among other improvements, according to DOCCS.
Most DOCCS facility staff have been trained with a refresher Sexual Victimization Prevention and Response refresher course about how to interrupt behavior that leads to sexual victimization in the past six months, with a goal to train remaining staff by the end of the year.
Hoylman sponsored the Adult Survivors Act to allow survivors the chance to seek justice with a civil suit against their individual abuser, or related entity where the abuse took place.
"If the state is involved in these matters, so be it," the senator said of potential consequences for the state. "This is a reckoning that needs to happen at every level of our society, and that includes our government and would include the state of New York."
More than 10,000 survivors of child sexual abuse filed cases under the Child Victims Act. That lookback window closed last year.
Officials with the state Office of Court Administration will request priorities for the state budget during negotiations with lawmakers early next year. Hoylman is eager to see what resources, funding and staffing the department says it needs to accommodate the additional caseload. He says he'll fight for more funding in the 2023-24 budget to ensure success for adult survivors.
"The Legislature will need to provide that funding to make sure these cases proceed smoothly," he said.
Hoylman also co-sponsors legislation to create a fund to help survivors secure legal representation. He's open to discussing those separate funds in the state's next financial plan.
The bill has highlighted such abuse rampant within the modeling and athletics industries, the medical field and others.
"I'm very gratified that so many survivors stepped forward and were courageous and shared their stories with my colleagues in Albany and really propeled this legislation forward," Hoylman said. "The reason we're here today is that they spoke up, which, was not an easy thing to do."