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This Latina Sexual Abuse Survivor Wants Stronger Laws for Child Victims

Ana Wagner was nine years old when she was first molested. Like two-thirds of sexual assault survivors, the Dominican-American woman knew her attacker. He was a family friend, the man her father was in business with.

MORE: This Documentary Tackles the Culture of Silence Around Child Sexual Abuse in Latinx Homes

It started in a Brooklyn, New York print shop, an enterprise her dad invested in and the place her attacker worked and lived. Wagner needed to print something for a school project and walked downstairs from her apartment to the store to do so. In the five minutes her mother gave her to make the prints, the man took advantage of her.

“He started putting his fingers in my private parts, and then he took out his penis and asked me if I could put my mouth on it. He told me this is what men and women do, and then he grabbed my hand and made me stroke him,” Wagner, now 37, told us.

When he was done, he took the young girl to his bedroom in the warehouse and started playing pornography on the television. He said he’d be her teacher. Wagner, a straight A student, knew something was wrong with his lesson. Aware of her acumen, the man suspected she wouldn’t stay quiet, so he played on her fears to keep the abuse a secret.

“He took out the Bible and made me swear to it that I wouldn’t say anything. If I broke my promise, he told me I would deal with the death of both of my parents,” Wagner, who was raised Catholic and was taking communion classes that year, remembered.

For three years the abuse continued, with Wagner living in silence and her family never suspecting any indiscretion. No one learned of the violence until she was 12 years old. Her Catholic school tasked students to do a research paper on any topic. She chose rape and molestation. Midway through her class presentation, Wagner had a panic attack.

“They took me out of class. I was crying and shaking. All I could do was point to the book,” she recalled. “They asked me if had been raped. I said no. They asked me if I was being molested, and I said yes. Everything I was reading was happening to me.”

Wagner was sent to the principal’s office, where, instead of compassion, she was met with an ultimatum. She was told she had 72 hours to tell her mother or the school would contact the authorities.

She was terrified. She could only think of the problems that could arise: her father could lose the business. They’ll be homeless. He may even kill the man. Worst of all, she thought, it would all be her fault.

The young girl phoned her aunt, and she was the one who broke the news to her parents. The scene she envisioned didn’t come to life. In fact, everyone was calm. Her parents believed her, the attacker skipped town and she was told to never speak of it again.

“My mother said, ‘we don’t have to talk about this anymore. We don’t have to tell any family members.’ It was almost like it was my fault,” Wagner said.

It wasn’t until she was 16 years old that the molestation was mentioned again, and that’s only because the attacker returned to her neighborhood.

“I saw him shaking my father’s hand. I broke a vase and screamed out the window,” she remembered.

As her uncle dashed out toward the man, Wagner was once again held responsible. “They said, ‘look at what you did. Your uncle could have gone to jail because of you,” she said.

So, again, Wagner kept silent about the abuse.

She graduated valedictorian. She got a scholarship to study architecture in college, which she did before transferring into psychology. She was married and divorced. She had children. She was remarried. Soon, it was decades after her molestation. She passed the age, 23, in which victims of child sex abuse could bring either criminal charges or file a civil lawsuit against their abusers in New York, yet she hadn’t overcome the trauma it dealt her.

She was 32, and four years into therapy.

“I finally burst. I was crying, punching pillows and mad that it was hidden under the rug for so long,” she said. “But I felt empowered.”

That power, however, was limited under New York law. She had to fight to make a police report and was left with no recourse.

When it comes to obtaining justice for survivors of child sex abuse, New York has been called "a national shame." It falls behind Florida, Georgia, Utah and Massachusetts, which all passed bills that offer survivors more time to bring their cases to court. In Florida, for instance, there are no statute of limitations for civil lawsuits or criminal charges for abuse that took place when a survivor was under the age of 16.

Wagner is part of a movement to pass similar legislation in New York. She lobbies between once and twice a month in Albany, has met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo two times, held meetings with several assemblywomen and even founded and organized the annual Walk for Survivors of Child Sex Abuse – all to push forward the Child Victims Act.

If passed, the bill could sack the civil and criminal time for adults who were abused as children to bring cases to court, open a one-year window for survivors who can no longer sue under the current law, and treat public and private institutions equally when it comes to sex abuse cases.

“Most survivors of child sex abuse that have not sought charges by 23 lose that opportunity for the rest of their lives, and we know most survivors don’t speak up because of trauma or because they told someone and they didn’t believe them,” Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs at Safe Horizon, the largest victims services nonprofit in the nation, told us.

The organization has long been a part of the battle to get the bill passed. However, these efforts have failed four times since 2006.

Opponents of the bill believe it violates due process. They argue that anyone can simply make up allegations in court and damage someone’s name. However, noting that these cases are uncommon, Polenberg also points out that New York extended statutes of limitations for two other laws – one for personal injury caused by exposure to toxic substances at a superfund site and another for injury or death of U.S military service members exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War – last year.

“The Child Victims Act is no different. People who have been sexually abused are simply seeking their day in court. The court system will work as always in terms of fairness and quality,” Polenberg said.

He continued: “It would restore the balance of power to the person who was harmed.”

For Wagner, it’s about healing, validation, regaining respect in the justice system and today’s young people.

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“Not another generation should believe it’s OK to just sweep this under the rug and go through adolescence not understanding the world and not being all they can be,” she said.