Ana Wagner, 37, of Lynbrook, paints a portrait of her childhood that she shares with her three children. She tells them about her life growing up in Brooklyn, that she was the smallest girl in her classes and that she maintained straight “A’s” throughout elementary school. The picture she paints, however, skips over a three-year segment of her story during which she was sexually abused by a friend of her father.
For most of Wagner’s life, she did not tell anyone about this. She attempted to file a police report at 32, but according to New York state law, she was too late.
Wagner shared her story on March 8 at Farmingdale State College alongside law enforcement officials, legal professionals and elected leaders at an event called “#KidsToo: How NY Fails Child Victims of Sexual Assault.”
Hosted by State Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, speakers addressed what could be done — and what they said should be done— in the New York legal system to support child victims of sexual assault.
According to current legislation, child victims of sexual assault could seek prosecution until they turn 23. The Child Victims Act aims to extend this age to 28 for criminal cases and 50 for civil cases. It would also create a one-year window after the bill’s passage in which individuals for whom the statute of limitations has passed can file a lawsuit.
Naomi Barasch, senior director of the Queens Child Advocacy Center, sees 1,500 child victims of sexual assault a year on average. “I spend my day telling these children that they’re going to be OK,” she said, adding that she will grapple with the authenticity of her statements until the Child Victims Act is passed.
She spoke at the forum of the long-term effects of sexual assault and drew a metaphor of crossing paths with a bear. In such a circumstance, human beings are inclined to fight or flight, “but when that bear comes home every day, that behavior becomes maladaptive,” Barasch said. She explained that many children battle post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of ongoing abuse, which prevents them from reporting the details until much later in life.
Harold Siering, of Lindenhurst, crossed a bear two to three times a day, from the age of 10 to 17, when he said he was abused by a Franciscan brother and an assistant principal at St. Joseph's Church in Babylon. “I was hugged, wrestled with, groped, fondled and abused in more ways that you can think about for their own disgusting gratification,” he said, adding that the men eventually entered his home life by impressing his single mother and posing as a role model for him.
“I kept this all a secret,” Siering added. “They both told me that no one would believe a kid over an adult or a ‘brother,’ and they both told me that this is what boys do.”
Ana Wagner was sexually abused for the first time at her father’s friend’s printing shop when she was 9. After the man fondled her, he made her put her hand on a Bible and asked if she believed in God. She said yes, and he asked if she loved her parents. She said yes, again, and he told her that her parents would die if she told anyone what happened to her that day. The abuse continued for three years until she spoke of it in a confession booth and was told to keep it to herself.
“Disclosure is a process; it is not an event,” said Kim Bryson, an NYPD senior investigator of sexual assault crimes. She explained that most cases are similar to Wagner’s and Siering’s in that they are underreported because the victims are afraid of backlash or blame themselves.
Pennsylvania attorney Leander James, who has represented hundreds of child survivors of sexual abuse survivors across the country, said that filing a civil claim is a tool that allows victims to “access empowerment.”
James explained that many groups lobbying against the bill are concerned that the one-year window it would create will provoke a wave of claims that could force institutions into bankruptcy. Such opposition comes from the Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America, the Boy Scouts of America and the Roman Catholic Church.
Despite the weight such organizations might carry as lobbyists, James and his fellow panelists urged the audience to advocate for the passage of the bill by spreading its message on social media, telling a friend about it and, most importantly, calling on local senators to support it. In 2016, Wagner created a rally called Survivors Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge, which mobilizes victims of sexual assault and supports the Child Victims Act.
“Children can’t get up and defend themselves,” she said. “We have to do it for them.”