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Lawyers, step up for victims of abuse: Representation required to achieve justice

2019-09-09

The prediction by Child Victims Act naysayers was that, when the one-year window for pursuing old claims opened on Aug. 14, there would be an avalanche of lawsuits that would cripple institutions and overwhelm the courts. Well, a little more than 400 cases were filed, and the New York sky did not fall.

More will come for sure, but too many victims are struggling to find an attorney. We need attorneys to step up for as many victims as possible, and they need to come from beyond the ranks of the mass tort attorneys that have dominated the airwaves recently.

When victims call the mass tort attorneys, they are typically told that the firm is not interested in cases that don’t involve large institutions, like the Catholic Church, Rockefeller University, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Boy Scouts. That hurts; some have taken to social media in disgust, and who can blame them.

But the problem is not in these firms that have taken on the behemoths (who need to be made accountable, after all). It is that too many attorneys who could help the victims who weren’t abused in an institutional setting have yet to embrace their obligations to this civil rights movement for children.

It is time for them to step up, and that includes family and divorce attorneys and, yes, the big law firms.

Beyond those abused with an institutional component are the perpetrators from the child’s universe — family, neighbors, babysitters and live-in boyfriends. Statistics tell us this accounts for 90% of the abuse.

Over a third of child sex abuse victims have been abused by family members. The family victims tend to be the most isolated and disabled by our cultural predisposition to keep families together at any cost to the child and by dysfunctional family members protecting the perpetrator, often because they are the breadwinner.

It’s hard to attack your church for hurting you, but it is also challenging for a son or daughter to root out the sex abuse in a family. In either case, you can lose your entire support system, because you stood up for what is right. In other words, you need an attorney to do the right thing.

There is one other reality that must be faced: A civil lawsuit may not be worthwhile where the defendants have zero assets. But that does not mean that the only worthy defendants in CVA cases are the ones with millions, property or insurance. Plenty of family victims should be able to sue, and family attorneys or divorce attorneys are in a good position to know how to find and identify assets in this setting.

The major law firms also should take on these smaller cases in a pro bono capacity. Even if the only result is that your client gets to name their perpetrator and enablers, you have done a public service. These lawsuits serve the greater good by publicly naming unknown perpetrators, and by educating society about this child sex abuse epidemic we created through denial, bad laws and protecting adults and their livelihoods ahead of children.

Compulsive pedophiles abuse on average 100 children over the course of their lives; too often, an abusing father can become the predator of his grandchildren. There is a dramatic public cost we are all paying because we aren’t stopping enough adults from making children their prey — in every context.

We will never turn the tide on child sex abuse until we have all pitched in to shift the power from the perpetrators and their enablers to the victims. The Child Victims Act is no panacea, and there is a lot left to do to protect our children. But the CVA window is a large step in the right direction, provided more attorneys step into the void and use their expertise to help the ones who can’t sue a deep pocket.

New York, let’s make the most of this moment, and help as many of the victims as possible this round, because that helps all of us.

Hamilton is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA.