Working to End Child Abuse with Kathryn Robb, Executive Director of ChildUSAdvocacy
Trigger warning: These show notes and the related audio recording contain material about sexual violence.
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, to discuss important initiatives to end child abuse and neglect.
Kathryn is a lawyer, legislative advocate, and law instructor who has been fighting to pass meaningful child sex abuse legislation across the country for more than 15 years. As an outspoken survivor of child sexual abuse, Kathryn continues to use her voice to implement common-sense legislative changes to end child abuse and neglect, and to enact victim-friendly legislation.
The initiatives of Child USAdvocacy include reforming statutes of limitations for child abuse and neglect; ending female genital mutilation, also known as FGM; ending conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth; ending exemptions for childhood vaccinations; ending child marriage; and family court reform.
Kathryn regularly testifies before legislative committees. She writes opinions for local and national press and appears on news outlets at the local and national levels. She is a co-founder of New Yorkers Against Hidden Predators, a coalition of organizations, advocates, and sex abuse survivors from across New York.
Kathryn has worked closely with then-New York governor Andrew Cuomo, his staff, and New York State legislators to finally pass the New York Child Victims Act after a 12-year hard-fought battle. The bill was signed into law on February 14th, 2019.
Welcome, Kathryn. I’m so happy to have you here. I’m so honored to have met you at the Child USA Dinner this year.
That was a lot of fun, with a lot of wonderful people and good energy and good hearts all around.
Gina Rubel: It’s amazing; so many wonderful women. I happened to be there at Gretchen Carlson‘s table, and it was fun to see her be honored. She’s also one of our previous guests on the show, so our listeners can hear what she has to say.
Tell us about your story and how you got into this line of work.
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. My abuse happened in the family; which is the largest pocket where abuse happens. We do hear about the church and camps and Boy Scouts of America and Larry Nassar, but the real numbers say that this happens in the family. I represent the more typical victims.
I was raised in New York, in a wonderful big Irish Catholic family. We had a lot of money and a home in the Hamptons; it was an idyllic type of life. There was a secret: I was being sexually assaulted by my oldest brother, from the time I was seven or eight until I was about 15.
It tore me apart at my core. It was something I couldn’t share with anyone, because it was shaming and embarrassing and too much to bear, quite frankly, for a little girl to go through that.
I used to have a dream that I still have occasionally. I share it with folks to illustrate how shame shuts people down, especially when abuse is in the family. I would go to tell my mother or father in the dream, because it was my oldest brother. The second I told my parents, our house would suddenly be engulfed in flames.
You don’t have to understand dream analysis to understand that I knew that sharing this horrible secret could damage and indict my family.
I finally spoke about it when I was in my early 20s to a dear friend. As most survivors do, they share a little bit, and then they clam up again. Because again, it’s just too much.
I didn’t speak publicly about my abuse until I was in my 40s. Right now, we know that the data says that most survivors don’t come forward until they’re somewhere between 50 and 60 years of age. Some never come forward, sadly, and take it to their grave.
I’m also a lawyer; I went to law school and I understand that our laws are meant to help people and our citizens. I saw a real injustice.
I found my voice and I thought, “This is the right thing to do, to get to one of the problems, which is our ineffective laws, and the laws that allow perpetrators to be protected by the passage of time and survivors to suffer in perpetuity.”
Gina Rubel: There’s so much to unpack there. I want to thank you for coming forward, and I want to thank you on behalf of all survivors. It’s not an easy journey. As I shared with you prior to our conversation, I had a friend who had stranger rape occur when she was very young. You shared with me that that’s very uncommon.
Kathryn Robb: Stranger danger is really a myth. The best research says that 90% of all survivors know their perpetrator and often know them very well.
When you referring to when you refer to SOL reform? What are the things that have to change?
There’s this basic clock on when you can bring a claim. The same is true on the criminal end.
The problem with the criminal end is that because of constitutional issues, you cannot reform statute of limitations for any sort of crimes. Herein lies the power of our civil laws to expose institutions that cover up child sexual abuse, look the other way, and move perpetrators around all of that. Civil laws can expose perpetrators to make kids safer and to educate society that this is a pervasive problem, where about 13.5% of all kids will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.
The other thing we want to do in changing the statute of limitations is to shift the cost of abuse away from taxpayers, from survivors, from the survivors’ families, and shift it to the bad guys. Make them pay; let’s not make taxpayers pay for this.
Most statutes of limitations for torts are somewhere between two and five years, usually two or three years for most torts. What happens with child sexual abuse is when you’re harmed, it takes many years for you to say, “Oh my God, this happened to me.” This is due to the horrific nature of the acts, and the fact that 90% of perpetrators are someone that the child knows; not to mention that it’s happening to a child who doesn’t have full brain development, doesn’t have full maturity, and can be manipulated.
Sometimes we see that survivors come to terms with it when they realize that one of their children is the age that they were when their abuse started. Other times, they just want to wait for their parents to pass. They don’t want to hurt their family.
There are a lot of different reasons why survivors first say, “Oh, dear, I have to deal with this.” It can be devastating. It’s episodes of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders, conflicts in relationships, employment issues; the list goes on and on.
I had significant sleep issues most of my life. Most of my abuse happened at night, so that makes sense. I couldn’t sleep because I was so afraid of being sexually assaulted.
I often say to lawmakers, “Look, I believe in due process. I believe in the system. I’m an American. I’m an attorney. I get it. It makes sense, but not for these types of claims.” We’re not talking about a slip-and-fall case. We’re not talking about a breach of contract case or a fender-bender case.
I say to lawmakers all the time, “Let’s be real about this. This is about the rape, sodomy, and sexual assault of our children. There need to be exceptions for that. This is a totally different tort, especially when the perpetrator silences the victim. Why should the perpetrator be rewarded for that? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not good public policy, and it’s not fair.”
We’re seeking to change all these statutes of limitations specifically for child sexual abuse, whether it’s complete elimination, complete elimination with revival and a cap on ages, or a window legislation.
We work in a lot of states to pass window legislation. That opens up a window of time – a start time and an end time where, if you were barred by the restrictive statute of limitations, you have this period where you can now name your accuser and hold them accountable; most importantly, you can identify bad actors, so kids right now are not being hurt. It uncovers hidden predators.
Gina Rubel: A good example of that is in the Catholic Church cases. I know some states have open window legislation, where people can come forward if they were the victims between a certain period of time in some states, just to give a point of reference. That’s not just to say the Catholic Church; it could be with any type of institution, but that’s one that has been rather prevalent on the East Coast more recently, to my knowledge.
Kathryn Robb: We’re seeing it in schools, as well as any youth-serving organization. We also have Boy Scouts of America, lots of churches and their camps, and educational institutions.
It is a ubiquitous problem. It is not just one particular religion, one political party, one race, or one type of family. This is a societal problem that is happening to every child out there across the board.
What are some of the statistics around children and sexual abuse?
At Child USAdvocacy, we work with our great sister organization, the national think tank led by the leading expert in the world, Professor Marci Hamilton.
Right now our statistics are 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys. Those numbers are tough. They’re probably a lot higher.
Why are they higher? Because people don’t want to share this. You don’t stand from the mountaintops and yell, “I was sexually assaulted by my teacher, my coach, my oldest brother, my stepfather.” It’s just not something people do. Almost a third of people take this really painful, ugly secret to their grave.
What do you think contributes to the problem of child sexual abuse?
There is a gender imbalance here. Why is it that so many more girls are sexually assaulted than boys?
I always call it the two Ps: the patriarchy and pedophilia. I think the other thing is that children are not valued. We have a real problem with how we raise our children and how we teach appropriate sexual boundaries and values.
More than twice as many girls will be sexually assaulted. When we get to the rape of adults between ages 17 and 34, the vast majority of rapes are of women. What’s happening? There’s a gender factor.
When I say something like “the patriarchy,” I don’t mean I dislike or hate men. That’s not what this is about. This is about a structure that values males over females. It hurts everyone. The patriarchy doesn’t just hurt girls and women: it hurts little boys as well, and men in the long run.
I think it’s a system where girls are oversexualized, women are oversexualized, and there are inappropriate boundaries. Also, there’s just a lot of sexism. There’s the major psychiatric issue of pedophilia, which is a pretty frightening and pervasive problem.
Gina Rubel: Kathryn and I are both attorneys, and we like to talk about evidence. When we talk about evidence, we talk about data and what supports these suppositions. It’s not really a supposition, it’s a fact. Women are paid less than men across the board. When we say women are less valued, there’s data that supports that. It’s not this feeling. It’s not a political statement. It’s not a judgment. It’s just factual.
In addition to supporting Child USAdvocacy, Child USA, and other organizations that are out there advocating, how do we make change?
The first thing is to be open to learning about this problem.
It’s yucky. It’s hard to watch. If you read a story in the paper, you just want to turn the page; you don’t want to listen to it. It’s hard for us to pay attention. It’s hard to pay attention to this issue.
The other thing is that a lot of people say, “Well, it’s out there, it’s not here. It’s not in my world. It’s Boy Scouts of America, it’s Larry Nassar, it’s Jerry Sandusky, it’s bad priests; it’s all out there.”
Actually, most of this is happening in the home. We need to be open to the issue and pay attention. The other important thing is to vote: show up, vote, and pay attention to what’s happening in your state. Passing these laws doesn’t just help survivors; it helps children right now.
If we have a zero-tolerance policy and say, “If you’re touching kids, you’re always going to be on the hook, as is your institution,” we make kids safer now. We force institutions to have better policies, procedures, responses, training, and reporting.
Institutions don’t want to get sued. That’s usually when an institution responds and makes significant change – when they have that “oh crap” moment. “We’re going to get sued for millions of dollars or something.”
What are the rules in your state? Are the rules fair in your state? Are they just? Are they serving the public good, primarily our children? Short statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse are not serving the public good. They’re protecting perpetrators, and they’re protecting institutions.
Generally speaking, we have to lean into the discomfort of this problem.
What are some of the solutions as it relates to child sexual abuse?
There should be no statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. These are not your typical torts. These are outrageous criminal acts.
Passing zero-tolerance laws is the only way we can make kids safer, parents can have a sigh of relief, and grandparents, guardians, aunts, and uncles know that their kids are going to be safe.
We have to push lawmakers to do the right thing. They get a lot of pressure from the insurance lobby, the American Tort Reform lobby, the Catholic Church, and other big institutions.
One of the things I say when I testify is, “Look, you got to do the right thing. The harder it is to do the right thing, the more important it is to do the right thing. You’re going to get pushback from different lobbying groups and different organizations. Can you look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day, knowing that you put justice and children and fairness and the safety of our children first?”
What’s more important than protecting our children? I can’t think of anything that’s more important than that.
Could you explain what caps are, what you’re trying to do, and why it’s so important?
What we try to do is to extend the statute of limitations to reflect the social science that the average person doesn’t come forward until they’re in their mid-50s. We would prefer that they’re eliminated entirely.
We’ve had 18 jurisdictions that have completely eliminated the statute of limitations, including the feds. In some states, we are somewhat comfortable if they go to age 53 or 55. Looking forward, you have until you’re age 55 to bring a claim.
We also push for revival, which pertains to situations where the statute of limitations is three years from your 18th birthday and you had to be 21 to come forward. Who at 21 is coming forward, by the way? I didn’t look at my watch and the calendar and say, “Oh, I need to come forward.” No one does that. We extend it. Let’s say you’re 40, you’re out of statute, and you don’t have a claim. Your abuser and the institution are getting away with this terrible injustice, and children are presently at great risk. We extend it to age 55 with revival, meaning it’s revived until you reach 55. Even if you are out of statute, you can now bring a claim up until age 55.
In some states, we do extensions to 50s with a window. The window opens after the governor signs the bill and it’s open for one to three years, all depending on the state.
That allows those survivors to come forward, because we have a lot of folks that haven’t told their spouse or children yet. How are they going to hire an attorney and tell them and come forward? That’s really hard.
We also have some lawmakers who want to have a cap on damages. I always fight back on that. What I say to them is, “If we just think about this in terms of crimes: if you commit a felony, you get a low penalty. If you commit a misdemeanor, you do not. It doesn’t make any sense. Especially for something as egregious as child sexual abuse, why are we having a cap on that?”
For other types of negligence: a kid trips at school and breaks their wrist – unlimited number on damages. That same kid in that school gets raped by a teacher? “Eh, we’re going to cap you.” That’s always pushed by institutions that are pressuring lawmakers, because they’re protecting their own pockets. We fight those monetary caps as well.
How does the Speak Out Act affect the work you’re doing? Does it play a role?
Imagine children, even a kid working at The Gap or Starbucks, young women: they don’t have the type of experience, maturity, or even brain development. We know that the brain doesn’t really stop growing and developing until about age 25. It’s not when they turn 18.
We know that young people, and young women especially, are going to be more susceptible to any sort of harassment and all of those types of abuses that happen in employment. Gretchen works specifically in terms of abuses, sexism, discrimination, and NDAs. She has a wonderful organization.
Kids work, especially in the summer, and those kids are abused. Our work aligns: giving women a voice, giving children a voice, and holding employers accountable for abuse. There are a lot of 16-, 17-year-old kids who are working and are extremely susceptible to these types of abuses.
With the legislation around employment such as the Speak Out Act, as it relates to NDAs and statutes of limitations at the federal level, do you believe that will help pass legislation favorable to non-working children as well?
Yes. This is about #MeToo. This is about Time’s Up. It’s about saying, “No more. This is not happening to adults in the workplace, to children in the workplace, or to children overall. You’re not going to silence them, because nothing good ever comes from a secret.”
Think about all of those young women who are abused in the workplace: they live for years worried that their lack of voice allowed another person to be harmed behind them. It’s just crappy public policy to be able to silence people in the workplace, especially children.
Where can people go to learn more about you and Child USAdvocacy?
They can go to childusadvocacy.org. We have a map, and they can see where we’re doing work. They can join what we call united fronts in each legislation in each state. They can reach out, send an email, get on that list, and be part of our team in that particular state. Then go to childusa.org. They’re the think tank: they have all the social science data, they have all the legal data, and we work hand in hand.
Professor Marci Hamilton and I are a one-two punch, and I would warn everyone to get the hell out of our way. We can hit hard when we need to, because we’re doing this on behalf of children.
Are there any particular resources you’d like to share with our listeners?
I’d like to say three things to your listeners, attorneys who have clients, survivors, and victims out there.
One: You are not alone. You are absolutely not alone.
Two: We believe you.
Three: Being part of the process of legislative change, although it can be very challenging, is profoundly healing. I hear this from survivors all over the country. If you are able to, in any capacity, come join us in this fight. Come join us in this civil rights movement for children.
Just come to our websites and reach out. You can always email me. I’m a sucker. I never say “No.” I have a hard time saying “No” to survivors. We want to be there for them, especially in the legislative process of fighting for better laws. We can do this together.
I call on attorneys listening to share this with their clients. I call on survivors or friends and families of survivors to reach out and get involved in this powerful civil rights movement for children.
Learn More & Connect
Learn more about ChildUSAdvocacy
Learn more about ChildUSA
Learn more about Gina Rubel
Listen to more episodes of On Record PR
Order a copy of Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers