By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
NEW BALTIMORE — Child victims activist Gary Greenberg is fighting to amend legislation he championed through the state Legislature and pushing for additional changes like a victims’ fund.
Greenberg, of New Baltimore, fought for years for passage of the Child Victims Act, which was enacted in 2019 and allowed victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers, no matter when the alleged abuse took place, under a lookback window, which closed in August 2021.
But while there are thousands of potential legal cases statewide, many victims have not been able to get justice, Greenberg said in a virtual panel held Feb. 23.
“The Child Victims Act, while it has been a success, has had some loopholes in it,” Greenberg said. “Not all victims who wanted to file a claim could file a claim. Many victims — and I have heard from hundreds of them personally — went to a lawyer asking for help, for them to take their case, and they were asked, does your case involve an institution or does your abuser have money? If they said no to both, then automatically the answer was sorry, we can’t help you.”
There are thousands of child sexual abuse cases filed under the legislation around New York state, but many more that have not.
“We have 10,000 cases filed, but there are thousands of victims out there over the last 50 years that thought they were going to get justice and healing under the Child Victims Act lookback, that have not gotten justice,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg proposed a state fund through local district attorney’s offices that would provide financial assistance for legal fees, medical treatment, therapy and other needs of abuse survivors, but the fund was rejected by both political parties in the state Legislature, he said.
Cases that have been filed in court have also seen delays and nonresponsive defense attorneys who are dragging the cases through the system, Greenberg alleged.
“There is a lot of frustration among victims,” he said. “There are cases that are just sitting there.”
Panelist Tracy Fichter said she attempted to get an attorney to represent her in a case against a school district where she says she was abused.
“I was very excited, for lack of a better term, when the Child Victims Act was passed,” Fichter said. “Finally, victims were going to get their day in court, whether it was me or others. I started calling attorneys and I talked to them for about an hour. I told them my story — and I did this three or four times — and each one rejected my case. Not only did they reject my case, but I felt like I was a little bit revictimized each time I had to tell my story and they said no.”
School districts do not have enough money to make the case profitable for an attorney, she said.
Greenberg told Fichter he has heard similar reports from many others.
“I have heard your story from so many victims and it’s not easy for you to go to a lawyer you have never met and to tell your story and then have that lawyer reject you,” Greenberg said. “But I give you a lot of credit to come out and speak out and try to help other victims like you.”
The fund he has proposed would help survivors like Fichter pay for an attorney to get their day in court, he added, along with paying for medical and mental health expenses following abuse.
The ramifications of child sexual abuse can impact the survivor the rest of their life, Fichter said.
“It’s not just how long you were abused — it is a lifetime of healing,” Fichter said. “It is mental health treatment, it is therapy, it is broken relationships. There is so much more to being a victim than just being a victim.”
Panelist Jack Cesare agreed.
“You never heal completely,” Cesare said.
He filed a claim against the Catholic Diocese in August 2019 and hired and fired several attorneys before he decided to represent himself in court. He urged others to be vocal about their stories and aggressively pursue their cases through the legal system.
“The victims are too silent,” Cesare said. “Gary and I open our mouths, but other people have to open their mouths like Gary and I because the squeaky wheel gets the oil; the nice ones get screwed again. Start speaking, start calling, raise your voice because it’s our time now… Silence does not work.”
Survivor Bryan Milazzo said he kept his abuse secret for 52 years. He also fired an attorney before deciding to represent himself. He, too, found the system slow and unwieldy.
“There are currently over 5,000 cases in New York City alone with only one judge,” Milazzo said.
Survivor Soyini Crenshaw said she has not brought a case to court.
“I personally never thought I could bring a case because I was abused by people within my family and in other interpersonal relationships, and not attached to any wealthy or famous person,” Crenshaw said.
The impacts of her abuse have followed her throughout her life, she said.
“I went and got my degrees and tried to establish a life, but I couldn’t,” Crenshaw said. “I experienced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is now complex PTSD. My entire adult life I have been in therapy trying to get stable.”
When family members are involved in an abuse case, the complexities are magnified, Greenberg said.
“Much of the abuse that occurs in our society is not from a stranger or someone we don’t know, it’s from a family member, or a neighbor, and it’s very hard,” Greenberg told her. “I give you credit for coming forward. It’s very hard in a family situation to come out and say that a relative abused me and it’s even harder to bring a relative to court. Lawyers are not taking these kinds of cases — there is no money in it for them.”
Greenberg said he hopes lawmakers will reconsider and amend the Child Victims Act to close loopholes that are making it difficult for abuse survivors to get their day in court.