The abuse was a secret Tanisha Johnson says she kept for years. First, she says, she felt too unstable to report it: debilitated from the daily migraines for which she had gone to the doctor in the first place; addicted to the opioids she claims he purposefully overprescribed for her. Later, she worried she wouldn’t be believed. Who would take the word of a queer Black woman living in public housing over the word of a prominent neurologist? Who would believe that a department chairman would grope her, expose himself, even force her to perform oral sex on him—all from his offices in major East Coast hospitals?
Even as more women came forward with strikingly similar stories, Johnson says she held back for one more reason: her teenage son. She feared that speaking out would devastate him and fracture their close relationship. When she finally worked up the nerve—when he, in fact, encouraged her to go to the authorities—it was too late. The statute of limitations in her case had expired.
Now Johnson is advocating for the passage of the Adult Survivors Act—a bill in New York State that would give sexual assault survivors in New York state a one-year “lookback window” to file a lawsuit against their abuser, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
“You cannot put a time limit as to how long it takes someone to process it and report it,” she says in a new PSA promoting the act. “Who puts a statute of limitations on my pain?”
The Adult Survivors Act was introduced in early 2020 to great fanfare. A similar bill, providing a lookback window to survivors of childhood abuse, had finally passed the legislature the year before, and notable New York sex abuse cases—Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Robert Hadden—were making national headlines. But when COVID-19 hit, it was largely buried under the pandemic panic.
Now, a star-studded lineup of activists is launching a campaign to reignite support for the measure, in hopes of getting it passed before the session ends in June. A new public-service ad, produced by the victims services nonprofit Safe Horizons, features Johnson, Weinstein survivor Ambra Gutierrez, and Evelyn Yang—the wife of New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang—who is one of dozens of women who say they were abused by gynecologist Robert Hadden.
“We've seen how unfair it has been to survivors who have had their opportunity for justice cut short by a legal framework that seems to have benefitted abusers,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), who introduced the bill in the Senate, told The Daily Beast. “There's a reckoning among legislators that, like with children, adult survivors should be able to pursue justice.”
Dozens of states have reformed their criminal statute of limitations in recent years, as prominent cases like Bill Cosby’s and Weinstein’s raised awareness that victims often take decades to come forward. Seven states have removed the criminal statutes of limitations on felony sex crimes entirely, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that states cannot apply these changes retroactively—meaning that for survivors whose abuse occurred before the statute was extended, their only shot at justice is through the civil courts.
This particular solution—a one-year window in which victims can file cases outside the previous statute of limitations—has received growing acceptance in the case of childhood victims. Eight states, including New York, have adopted a lookback window for victims who were under the age of 18 when their abuse occurred. In New York alone, more than 5,000 cases have been filed since the Child Victims Act passed in 2019, many of them focusing on institutions that have shielded abusers.
But advocates say the trauma and structural barriers to reporting don’t disappear when someone turns 18. Victims of adult sexual abuse can still take years to come forward, according to Safe Horizons CEO Liz Roberts, because of the stigma around sexual assault and fear of retaliation, as well as the way traumatic memories are stored in the brain—squirreled away in bits and pieces until the survivor is ready to process them.
“The very act of facing the memory is a courageous act that requires support and requires you to be in a stable enough position that you can tolerate the feelings that come up,” Roberts said. “We frequently work with survivors who suffered a terrible trauma many years ago, who are just now at a point their life when they’re ready to face what happened to them.”
So far, the only state to allow a lookback window for adult survivors is New Jersey, which opened a two-year window for both child and adult survivors to file cases in December 2019. Marci Hamilton, the CEO of CHILD USA and a major advocate for the law, said the response to its passage has been “seamless,” if not overwhelming: Many adult survivors and attorneys were simply unaware that the law included them or their potential clients.
“[Adult] survivors have not been the ones that have sought a lot of attention in the press or otherwise, but the fact that it opened—I heard from a lot of both survivors and attorneys that this was a ray of hope for some that really felt left behind,” she said, noting that she expected a flurry of filings before the window closes in November.
Johnson is one such victim. Despite her failed attempt to file a criminal complaint, her doctor, Ricardo Cruciani, was eventually charged with sex crimes against patients across three different states. (The doctor previously pleaded guilty to groping seven patients in Philadelphia; his charges in New York and New Jersey are still pending.) Because Johnson claims some of the abuse occurred in Cruciani’s New Jersey offices, she is able to file suit against him there, which she plans to do before the end of the year.
The 46-year-old has also filed suit against Cruciani in New York, but his attorneys have pushed back, citing the statute of limitations. That case is currently on hold while the criminal charges progress, and she hopes the new bill will pass before it resumes.
“You can’t tell someone when it’s time for them to speak about something horrific that happened to them,” she told The Daily Beast. “To tell someone they are required to report a crime against them in a specific amount of time isn't fair to the victim, it only protects the assailant.”
The legislation is currently before the Judiciary Committee, where it must pass a vote before heading to the Senate and Assembly floors. Hoylman and the bill’s other supporters are hoping to hold a vote before the session ends in June.
The timing for the vote is somewhat awkward, given recent allegations of sexual harassment—and in one case, of sexual assault—against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (The governor has denied sexually assaulting or harassing anyone.) But Hoylman said he thinks the current news cycle could work in their favor.
“Any attention on this issue that has been buried for decades and the conversation about sexual offenses is important,” Hoylman said. “Public debates in the media and elsewhere are really key to shine a light.”
He added: “People, generally speaking, don't want to talk about it, and the fact that survivors themselves are coming forward really forces the conversation.”