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Facing Lawsuits Triggered by the State’s Child Victims Act, St. Christopher’s Will File for Bankruptcy

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March 28, 2024

By Barrett Seaman–

St. Christopher’s, the Dobbs Ferry-based home for more than a century to children with physical and behavioral needs, plans to file for bankruptcy and is embarking on an effort to restructure its finances.

In a statement to The Hudson Independent, Dr. Sarah Ruback, the welfare agency’s CEO, wrote that the 143-year-old non-profit “considered various options over the past several months to preserve the organization’s mission,” explaining that “the delicate financial situation of St. Christopher’s was overwhelmed after recent changes in the law that impacted our organization and many other child welfare agencies in New York.”

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As part of a larger restructuring, St. Christopher’s has had to lay off 52 of its 72 Dobbs Ferry employees. It has also transferred many of its residents, who are mostly teenagers, to its Jennie Clarkson home in North Castle, while others have been sent to other programs.

Dr. Ruback’s ”recent changes” is a reference to New York State’s Child Victim Act (CVA), enacted in 2019, which gives the survivors of alleged childhood sexual abuse up until age 55 to sue. According to the SeaChange Capital Partners, a New York-based nonprofit that has done research on the CVA, nearly 11,000 such cases have so far been filed—15% of which have been brought against child welfare agencies such as St. Christopher’s. According to Kathleen Brady-Stepien, CEO of COFCCA, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an advocate for welfare providers, more than 800 suits have been filed against New York agencies, and the average time elapsed since the alleged offense in those cases is 42 years.

According to COFCCA, St. Christopher’s is the third metropolitan area welfare provider to declare bankruptcy prompted by CVA suits in recent months. One is the Sheltering Arms agency in New York City. Another, the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, a residential center for at-risk youth in Riverhead, Long Island, filed for bankruptcy in late January because it was facing $4.8 million in debt, including legal fees from five lawsuits filed under the CVA, according to the Riverhead News-Review.

Local sources close to non-profit child welfare agencies like St. Christopher’s confirm that these lawsuits, which may or may not allege abuse by employees but rather by older children in the same institution, are pervasive. Several knowledgeable sources say that it would be highly unlikely that any of the child welfare agencies, of which there are three prominent ones in the rivertowns, have escaped the wave of CVA-inspired lawsuits.

Those who defend specific institutions do not question the goal of the Child Victims Act nor suggest that there haven’t been egregious cases of sexual abuse throughout the years. But because the statute of limitations is so long (some alleged incidents happened half a century ago), many cases pre-date any applicable insurance coverage, allowing insurers to walk away from claims.

The remedy sought by these agencies and their advocates like COFCCA and SeaChange is the establishment of a state fund to pay legal expenses not covered by insurance. According to Ms. Brady-Stepien, welfare home advocates have been pressing Albany to include such provisions in this year’s budget, which has a deadline in early April. Several newspapers, including the Albany Times-Union and Newsday on Long Island, have editorialized in favor of such an amendment. When asked about the status of the CVA, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins issued a statement saying, “The historic Child Victims Act was passed to protect children from sexual abuse and neglect as well as to seek justice. We continue to look at ways to best achieve these goals and to  discuss issues as we move forward. “

As often happens, in the absence of authoritative information, there has been speculation that there is a darker narrative behind St. Christopher’s bankruptcy and layoffs. One Facebook post raised the specter of indictments of “various higher-ups for mismanagement of funds.” Dr. Ruback and other knowledgeable sources call those charges “not accurate,” and there appears to be no record of charges of financial malfeasance against anyone working for St. Christopher’s. That, however, is of little solace to the former employees and residents.

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