Life imitates art - three billboards seek tougher abuse law for New York

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 March 2018 19:40 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A general view of the Empire State Plaza and the State Capitol is seen in Albany, New York October 12, 2011. REUTERS/Hans Pennink

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Kat Sullivan said she was inspired by "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For many, age 23 holds no special significance, but for Kat Sullivan it marked the end of access to justice - and now she wants to change that with three billboards, inspired by the hit movie.

Sullivan said she was raped in 1998 by her history teacher at the Emma Willard School in upstate New York. She reported the attack to the school, but no police action was taken, and the teacher moved schools and continued to work.

Haunted by the assault, years later she sought legal action, only to encounter a statute of limitations.

In New York, victims of child sex abuse can pursue criminal charges or civil action only before their 23rd birthday, although a measure in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget for the new fiscal year could change that.

Sullivan said she was inspired by "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" - a 2017 film in which a mother rents three billboards to pressure police to solve her daughter's murder.

Sullivan's digital billboards are located in Albany, not far from Emma Willard in Troy; in Connecticut, where her alleged rapist worked after the attack; and in Massachusetts, where he reportedly lives now.

"My rapist is protected by New York state law. I am not," one billboards reads, featuring Sullivan's picture. "Neither are you. Neither are your children."

Sullivan, 38, is campaigning for the Child Victims Act, which would extend the statute of limitations to 28 in criminal cases and 50 in civil cases.

It would also create a one-year "look-back" window to allow victims of any age to bring their abusers to court.

"I have no legal recourse against my rapist, and as a result he's been free for the last 20 years to hurt other young girls," Sullivan said in a statement on Friday.

"It's time our laws work to protect children, not the people who harm us."

The Child Victims Act has been introduced every year for more than a decade but not made it to the New York Senate floor for a vote.

Opponents include the Catholic Church, which has said the look-back window could open the floodgates to legal actions in accusations many years old.

If passed, New York would join seven other states that have revised statutes of limitations on childhood sexual abuse.

Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, a spokesman recently indicated his support for reform.

"It is outrageous that as a result of arcane laws, these victims have been denied their day in court," Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

Sullivan said she funded the campaign with money received in a settlement from the school.

Representatives for Emma Willard also did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

In a statement to NBC New York, the school said it felt "grief and compassion for anyone who experienced harm in the past" and was committed to keeping students safe.

It added that it commended and supported survivors of sexual abuse seeking to effect change around the issue. (Additional reporting by Meka Beresford in London, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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