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The NY Adult Survivor’s Act offers a path forward for sexual assault on college campuses

The Adult Survivors Act offers a path forward

Experts and advocates stress the importance of legislation that returns agency to survivors on college campuses.

Governor Kathy Hochul signs the Adult Survivors Act in the Red Room at the State Capitol with survivor and advocate Marissa Hoechstetter.
Mike Groll/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signs the Adult Survivors Act in the Red Room at the State Capitol with survivor and advocate Marissa Hoechstetter.

The New York State Adult Survivor’s Act’s (ASA) one-year lookback window expired on Nov. 24. The law, which Gov. Hochul signed in May of last year, extended the statute of limitations for victims of sexual violence over the age of 18, allowing them to file civil suits regardless of when the incident occurred.

The ASA creates institutional liability, allowing survivors to sue organizations and institutions that may have played a role in the covering up of misconduct. 

Modeled after the Child Victims Act, the ASA is trauma-informed legislation that supports survivors’ grieving journey — specifically, if they wanted to report, but previously lost the opportunity due to the legal timeline. 

New York legal experts and sexual violence activists alike praised the ASA for promoting a less sequential recovery path for survivors, especially for survivors of campus sexual violence, but still say the state can do more to cultivate communities for victims to feel safe and valued. 

Cynthia LaFave, a co-counsel attorney with Jeff Anderson and Associates PA legal firm acknowledged the significance of the act but also emphasized that there is still work to do. 

“We know over 2,500 survivors have come forward under the New York Adult Victims Act,” LaFave said. “Unfortunately, I believe this is merely a drop in the bucket. There are likely thousands of more survivors out there.”

Kamaria Porter is an assistant professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University where she researches both the policy and implementation level of Title IX. Under Title IX and Sex Discrimination, students enrolled at any college or university receiving federal funding are protected from gender-based discrimination, including sexual violence. 

Porter’s work explores inconsistencies among institutions and their Title IX reporting process that make filing a report unique and complex on a case-by-case basis. Because of the highly personal nature of the decision to report, Porter says legislation like the ASA is crucial for campus survivors. 

“The decision to report is not linear, is not immediate and is highly constrained compared to other kinds of crimes,” Porter said. “So, laws like The Adult Survivors Act are really important because survivors are continuing to make meaning of the harm, but also the ways the institutions they’re attending — are embedded in — also contributed to that harm.”  

She explained that, because of the varying timelines for empowerment, flexibility is crucial for campus sexual assault survivors with marginalized identities. Legislation like the ASA fulfills that need.

To explore barriers to reporting among marginalized groups in her dissertation, Porter conducted 60 interviews with survivors of campus sexual assault, the majority being women of color. Specifically, 46 of the interviewees were either Black women or black non-binary students. Together, they discussed legitimate and perceived societal barriers to reporting. 

If a survivor’s first interaction is with a campus police officer and that officer’s bias is informed by racial and gender stereotypes, the survivor is going to be “discouraged” Porter said. “But as they get support, or as they learn more or as they hear from other survivors, they may feel differently empowered.”

The disproportionate rate of campus sexual violence extends beyond Penn State and the University of Michigan, where Porter earned her doctorate. 

Data collected from the Association of American Universities (AAU) 2020 survey of sexual violence had similar findings in its evaluation of over 100,000 undergraduate students and 70,000 graduate students.

“The overall rate of non-consensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since the student enrolled at the school was 13% with the rates for women, TGQN and undergraduate students being significantly higher than for men and graduate and professional students,” the AAU report found. 

TGQN students are those who listed their gender identity as transgender women, transgender men, nonbinary, gender questioning or gender not listed.

Additionally, the AAU study found that students who identify as LGBTQ+ in both undergraduate and graduate populations report the highest percentage of sexual misconduct at 65.1%. 

To Porter, the AAU’s findings reinforce the need for trauma-informed legislation, like the ASA, to broaden reporting options and provide each student with the same protections of Title IX, regardless of gender binaries. 

“When we talk about categories of discrimination or inequality, we have to go beyond the binary of gender,” Porter said. “Our society and college campuses are still stuck in that binary. Nonbinary and trans students are most discriminated against just based on our adherence to these binaries.”

To avoid missteps caused by a one-size-fits-all approach to sexual assault care, Chrys Ballerano emphasizes the importance of cultural competence and cultural humility in her work with the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NYSCASA). 

As the Senior Director of Collaboration and Training, Ballerano spends most of her days training care advocates on how to approach survivors in a de-stigmatized, empathetic way that meets them where they are. 

“We don’t all heal in the same way,” Ballerano explained. “We don’t all use the same tools for recovery. Some of us want to go through the system of criminal justice and some of us don’t choose that path. All of that needs to be understood and honored as the survivor’s choice. Legislation like the Adult Survivors Act helps give space for that choice.”

When an assault occurs on a college campus, these principles only become more vital because of campus diversity, according to Ballerano.

For students in marginalized communities enrolled in a predominantly white institution, like Syracuse University, care coordinators must be adept at meeting the needs of each student. 

Diverse communities that have international students make it imperative to have an accessible array of options, according to Ballerano.

“Being able to offer even peer support settings where people might just connect as humans, they don’t have to talk about their sexual assault, are wonderful alternatives,” Ballerano said.

Both Porter and Ballerano emphasized a key facet of campus sexual assault care — flexibility. For far too long the U.S. has relied on regulations outlining how to handle sexual violence based solely on Title IX and its provisions. 

A regimented, time-sensitive approach to sexual assault adjudication on college campuses is impractical, she said, and neglects to acknowledge the nuanced trauma a survivor is coping with after an assault. 

“The first thing on a survivor’s agenda should always be toward healing,” Porter said. “The more time that is given and understanding that reporting isn’t always the first thing a survivor needs to attend to, can open up those support options for survivors to stay in school.” 

LaFave agreed and also noted the Adult Survivors Act as a shift in power dynamics, which scarcely occurs for victims of sexual violence. 

“There are organizations in New York that, for years if not decades, got away with covering up abuse,” LaFave said. “Finally, these perpetrators are facing consequences. For the first time, many survivors are in a position of power.”

Legally, the extended statute of limitations provided through the ASA can offer survivors who opt to go the legal route an extra time cushion to make a decision, Ballerano said. 

“When somebody actually does come forward, it’s acknowledging that person has done something that you’re honored to witness,” Porter said. “You’re humbling yourself right off the bat by saying, ‘Thank you for sharing your experience with me.’” 

But before a survivor chooses how to proceed, the first step is always to meet them where they are, Ballerano said. The rest will fall into place with time.