Justice for Sexual Assault Survivors: New Law Offers Healing

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Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.

 

Marissa Hoechstetter knew things weren’t quite right. First, there was the question about orgasms posed by Robert Hadden, the older male doctor who became her OB/GYN. Then, in a follow-up appointment early on in her pregnancy, his “overly-handsy” breast exam. It was Hoechstetter’s first pregnancy. Hadden had been recommended by a trusted friend and she believed he would treat her with care. So she brushed off her discomfort, as women in ambiguous situations so often do.

In a subsequent visit, while she lay on the examination table, Hoechstetter felt Hadden rub her clitoris. “Did that actually happen?” she asked herself. The draping around her protruding abdomen obscured any view of his hand. She was near the end of her pregnancy; delivery of her twins was imminent. She told herself she needed to stay focused on a healthy delivery. And she did. In April of 2011, her beautiful twin daughters were born.

But one year later, during the vaginal exam that was part of her one-year postpartum visit, Hoechstetter did not second-guess. The prickle of Hadden’s beard and tongue on her labia were undeniable. “I knew what happened,” she says. “I knew.” Still, she tried to refocus. “Almost everyone I know has some experience that we’ve tried to accept and move on. So I was like, ‘I’m not in danger. I’m not going to see this person anymore. I’ve got to raise my babies and live my life.’”

But the violations of her body, and of the trust she’d placed in the medical establishment, would not abate. The actions of the man then-acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss would later describe as “a predator in a white coat” led her to shun subsequent doctor’s visits, destroyed memories of her pregnancy, and impacted her relationship with her young children. “There was a long time where I didn’t even want to look at baby pictures, because they reminded me of what happened – of the first person to touch my children.”

In late May, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law the Adult Survivors Act (ASA). The bill gives people like Hoechstetter an opportunity to hold perpetrators, and the systems that protect and enable them, to account – allowing survivors to file claims that would have otherwise been barred due to the statute of limitations.

New Recourse for Survivors

 

In 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and increasing accountability for sex crimes, New York extended the statute of limitations from 3 years to 20 years for adults filing civil lawsuits for certain sex crimes, including forcible touching, sexual abuse, and rape. However, the extension only affected new cases and could not be applied retroactively, which is where the ASA comes in.

The bill creates a one-year “look-back window” that allows individuals who were 18 years of age or older when they were harmed in New York state to file a civil lawsuit against the people, or institutions, that caused injury.

The effort is modeled after the Child Victims Act (CVA), legislation passed by the New York state Senate in 2019, that raised the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes by 5 years and raised the civil statute of limitations for someone seeking redress for physical, psychological, or other harm caused by child sexual abuse to age 55. The CVA look-back window was also scheduled to last for 1 year, but was twice extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time it closed, over 10,000 cases had been filed not only against individuals but against institutions, including the Boy Scouts of America and numerous Catholic Dioceses. Attorneys anticipate a similar spike of cases with the ASA.

While a growing number of states have opened look-back windows for those who are abused as children, justice for adult survivors of sexual assault has been slow, based on the rationale that adults are better equipped to respond to acts of violence within a predictable time frame. Statutes of limitation are intended to discourage unreliable witness accounts, but they belie how insidious and devastating sexual assault can be.

It Takes Years

“It is very different than if you’re a victim of a robbery where someone comes in and steals your TV or takes your jewelry,” explains Sherri Papamihalis, the clinical director at Safe Horizon Counseling Center, the only outpatient mental health clinic specializing in evidence-based trauma treatment for survivors of crime and interpersonal violence. “With assault, the body becomes the crime scene.” The emotional and physical impacts – ranging from fear, depression and anxiety, to impaired cardiovascular function and PTSD – are not linear and can be hard to detect.

Discrete portions of the brain are responsible for the processing of bodily sensations and memory, but when traumatized, Papamihalis says, experiences can become fragmented and memories are suppressed. “It’s as if you threw a glass down and it shattered.”

That’s why trauma can rise to the surface in unexpected ways at unanticipated times. “Take, for example, a rape survivor who was victimized by an uncle who smoked,” Papamihalis says. “They may only remember the smell of the cigarettes or recall a certain sound. Their body will hold the sensations, but they may not have a linear memory of what happened.” This avoidance is one of the symptoms of PTSD. “The brain tries to protect us from painful memories. Someone might remember bits and pieces of an assault, or they may not remember anything at all.”

For Hoechstetter, the impacts of Hadden’s abuse lodged within her body and psyche took years to be fully revealed. She knew what he had done and felt the impacts of the abuse, but still had to hold down a job, take care of her daughters, and get on with her life. It was only when a relative questioned why women who had been assaulted by Bill Cosby took so long to step forward that she realized she, too, needed to speak up and add her voice to the small chorus of those who had already made claims against her former doctor.

Holding Abusers to Account

Hadden was eventually arrested in 2020 and found to have sexually abused dozens of patients between 1993 and 2012. According to the original indictment, the disgraced doctor “used the cover of conducting medical examinations to engage in sexual abuse that he passed off as normal and medically necessary, when it was neither normal nor necessary – it was criminal.”

Although the number of victims eventually swelled to over 200, many were told their cases were too old to prosecute. Hadden eventually received what Hoechstetter describes as a “slap on the wrist” plea deal in which he lost his medical license, but received no prison time. He was required to register as a sex offender, but only at the lowest level, which kept him off the public registry.

The outcome, prosecutors told Hoechstetter, was the best they could have hoped for. To Hoechstetter, this was another violation – and galvanized her to advocacy. “It went beyond the feelings towards this person who had harmed me, and became a much bigger feeling of rage at the institutional failures of people who said they were supporting and protecting me. Once I realized how deep the corruption went, and how many women he’d abused, I knew that there had to be institutional accountability, too.”

The ASA not only opens up possibilities to hold perpetrators like Hadden to account in civil court, it creates an additional path of recourse against hospitals, churches, schools, or other negligent institutions that may have created conditions that allowed the abuse to occur or continue. Hoechstetter is already involved in litigation against Hadden and Columbia University Irving Medical Center New York-Presbyterian Hospital, but is heartened that the ASA will enable the “dozens and dozens of Hadden victims who keep coming forward and have had no recourse” to benefit. “If we don’t name the harm done at the start, we won’t ever move the needle on sexual violence.”

The Power of Speaking Up

In New Jersey, similar legislation instituted in 2019 gave both child and adult sexual assault survivors 2 years to bring civil claims, regardless of when the abuse occurred. Lawsuits skyrocketed as many of those who had suffered in silence had opportunities to seek restitution. But advocates caution lawsuits and legislation should not be considered the final or only measure of healing.

“Healing is deeply personal and deeply individual,” says Robert Baran, managing director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA), “and the look-back window is always going to be an arbitrary number that will seem insufficient to a large portion of survivors.” But what it does do is expand options, allowing survivors greater opportunity to seek their own versions of justice and accountability. Not everyone has the resources – or will – to move forward with a lawsuit in the prescribed windows, Baran says, but knowing they have the chance to do so is impactful in itself.

For those who are able to come forward, the financial damages that could be awarded through a civil lawsuit can help “shift the burden” of the emotional, financial, and life costs from the survivor to the responsible party. That, Baran says, “can feel empowering, liberating, and vindicating.” While he recognizes that “putting what we could call a ‘price tag’ on pain and trauma doesn’t always feel great,” he explains financial relief can enable people to pursue other avenues for healing, including therapy or time off from work. “It can allow for options that might not have otherwise presented themselves.”

More broadly, he says, there is great power in sharing one’s experience, echoed in what survivor and advocate Marissa Hoechstetter describes as her “full circle” experience. On May 24, 2022, she and her 11-year-old daughters were part of a small group who attended the signing of the ASA. Her girls, she says, were the only children there. They got to have their picture taken with the governor, and told their mom how very proud they were of her.

“To have had this happen to me when I was pregnant, and then be at the bill signing with my kids, it was really emotional,” Hoechstetter says. “I hope I’m teaching my daughters that they need to use their voice if someone hurts them or they see harm being done to other people. That this is what it means to use our voice for good.”

 

Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, you can find resources and 24/7 support at theRape, Abuse & Incest National Network,  1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673).

The Adult Survivors Act opens a one-year window, during which adult survivors of sexual violence that occurred in New York state can bring their cases in civil court against their abusers or any individuals or institutions that enabled their abuses. The ASA will only set aside the civil statute of limitations for the duration of the one-year window, starting on November 24, 2022, and closing on November 23, 2023. When the window expires, the existing statute of limitations will, once again, take effect.

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