Utah victims say NY kid abuse laws too weak, join fight to enact Child Victims Act
ALBANY, NY – When the siblings making up the well-known classical piano ensemble The 5 Browns were looking into bringing sexual abuse charges against their father, they briefly considered New York before learning the state’s weak laws wouldn’t work.
The abuse — only some of which occurred in the state — took place just long enough before so that New York’s notoriously weak statute of limitations on child sex abuse expired.
So instead, they chose their home state in Utah, where their father and former manager, Keith Brown, ultimately pleaded guilty in 2011 to sexually abusing three of his daughters between 1990 and 1998. He was ultimately sentenced to 10 years to life behind bars.
The experience is the reason why two of the siblings — Desirae and Deondra Brown — on Tuesday will be joining the fight in New York to pass the Child Victims Act that would make it easier for kid sex abuse victims to seek justice as adults.
The two women will take part with other survivors and advocates in a lobby day at the state Capitol Tuesday that will include a press conference.
“Once I realized how unfortunate the laws are here and how little recourse the children survivors have here, it just made sense for us to join the fight,” Desirae Brown, who currently lives in Manhattan and has two young children, said during a recent conference call with Deondra Brown and the Daily News.
“The biggest message is our personal story,” she said. “If everything that happened to us happened in New York, we would not have our father in prison right now.”
Like many victims of sexual abuse, the Brown siblings didn’t come forward for years. For a long time, each one didn’t even know that they had two other siblings going through the same horror with their father.
It took them 10 years before they sought any charges. Some of the abuse took place when the five Brown siblings — there are two brothers — were all enrolled in The Julliard School in New York City from 2001 to 2006.
“We had looked into filing some charges in New York State early on,” Deondra Brown said. “There was a possibility we could potentially have a case there with one of our sisters.”
But ultimately, after having discussions with New York law enforcement and prosecutors, they learned “we would have a much better option filing charges and having our father being held accountable in the state of Utah,” Deondra Brown, now 37 and still living in Utah, said.
“That was a real eye opener for us,” she said. “We learned how different the statute of limitation laws were in different states. As we started researching, we realized that New York was one of the worst states in the country for us.”
Desirae Brown, now 39 and living in Washington Heights, added that the statute of limitations in New York “had literally expired three months before we started investigating.”
Under state law, child sex abuse victims have until their 23rd birthday to bring charges against their attacker. If the abuse took place in a public institution, like a school, it’s even harder to seek justice in civil court since a victim would have to file a notice of claim to sue the entity within 90 days of the attack.
Advocates say it can be decades before a victim comes to grips with what happened in their youth and is prepared to move forward.
In New York, sexual abuse survivors have been pushing for passage of a Child Victims Act for a dozen years. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has passed a version several times during that time, including in 2017.
But each time, the bill, which has been opposed by a number of groups, including religious organizations like the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish community, died in the Republican-dominated Senate.
A key roadblock is a provision that would create a one-year window for sexual abuse victims, like the Browns, who can no longer bring civil cases under current law to be able to do so.
Advocates are more hopeful a bill can pass this year after Gov. Cuomo included the Child Victims Act in his proposed 2018-19 budget.
His proposal would allow survivors to bring civil cases up to 50 years from the attack and would eliminate the statute of limitations for any felony sexually related offense committed against someone under the age of 18.
It would also include the one-year window to revive old cases and would treat public and private institutions the same when it comes to child sex abuse.
Desirae Brown called the measure’s inclusion in the governor’s proposed budget “very promising.”
“We hope by telling our story we can help institute change,” she said.
Deondra Brown said arguments that opening a one-year window to revive old cases would cause a flood of legal cases has not been borne out in other states.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “It will allow these victims to see if they have a potential for cases. If they don’t, the courts will throw it out. But the opportunity for victims to name their abuser, this is something that needs to happen. Victims need to be able to come forward and do something so the perpetrators won’t continue to get away with it in our communities.”
Months after their father’s sentencing in 2011, Desirae Brown and Deondra Brown, who has a 7-year-old daughter, created The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, a nonprofit group that advocate for victims’ rights.
Deondra Brown said the group was part of the fight in 2015 that led Utah to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to bring lawsuits as adults. A year later, a law was passed creating a three-year window to revive old cases that had been time-barred under the old law.
“We realize what a big help it’s been with our healing process to be able to be heard and be able go forward with charges and feel we can have other options available to us,” Deondra Brown said. “Whether victims choose to move forward or not, it’s so damaging to be told they can’t have a voice and the doors have closed on their opportunity to be heard. We are a success story but we hope no matter where you live across the country, you’d be able to have those possibilities afforded to you.”
State Senate Republicans, thus far, have not been receptive to Cuomo’s plan.
State Senate Democrats on Tuesday are scheduled to hold a press conference with child abuse survivors and advocates calling on the Republicans to keep the Child Victims Act in the final budget that is due by April 1.
“The Senate Republicans have blocked this important bill for too long,” said Senate Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Now is the moment to get this done and we cannot miss this crucial opportunity to provide justice to so many brave survivors. To remove this bill from the budget or water it down would be a disservice to New York.”
Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif had no comment.
But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in December told The News “we’re more than willing to sit down to have real adult discussions that inure to the benefit of everyone.”
He added that “the specter of a good compromise is everyone walks away a little bit unhappy. Will we have discussions about it? Absolutely. Have we had them? Yes. Will they continue in earnest? I completely believe that 100%.”
The Brown sisters, who are still performing with their siblings as The 5 Browns, join a growing chorus of other national figures who have joined the fight to enact the Child Victims Act in recent months. Others include actor Corey Feldman, who says he was abused as a child actor, Sunny Hostin, a co-host of “The View” who’s also a former federal prosecutor, and television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz.
The Browns hope their stories and the changes made in states like Utah will convince the Senate Republicans to act this year.
“We realize it can be done even in such a conservative state as Utah, where we have people who are wanting to make sure that victims are protected,” Deondra Brown said.