ALBANY – A year ago, relatives of Jay J. Bolvin, a young North Tonawanda boy severely injured at the hands of his father, were huddled in a third-floor office at the state Capitol trying to convince Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver why the state’s child abuse laws needed strengthening.
It was not to be in 2012.
“We thanked him, and I told him we would not give up and we will be back,” recalled Kevin Retzer, the boy’s uncle.
After employing social media, Web pages, press appeals, personal contacts with lawmakers across the state, trips to the Capitol, a rally and help from a Cheektowaga high school government affairs class, the boy’s relatives saw their work fulfilled Monday with the signing of a law that closes a loophole on individuals who repeatedly abuse children.
“Obviously, we’re 100 percent thrilled. I’m dismayed it took this long considering the level of abused children who are suffering every day in this state,” said Retzer, one of a team of family lobbyists who have traveled to the state Capitol the past couple legislative sessions pressing for the change in law.
“It’s not going to deter everyone, but if there are those individuals who are going to hurt children, we’re happy they’re going to be more properly punished,” Retzer said in an interview Monday.
The new law was signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and takes effect immediately.
Jay J., an infant at the time of his 2011 beating by his father, today suffers from a variety of developmental issues and still does not speak, has difficulty walking and spends up to 20 hours a week in a variety of physical, occupational, speech, special education and aquatic therapy sessions.
His case exposed problems that let repeat child offenders get by with lesser sentences because of a loophole that did not allow the courts to look back beyond a three-year conviction window. The new law increases the “look back” period for assaults on children younger than 11 years old from the present three years to 10 years.
In the case of the young North Tonawanda boy, his father, Jeremy Bolvin, was given a maximum four-year prison sentence; he had previously been convicted of third-degree assault for breaking the arm of another one of his sons in 2006.
In signing the bill, Cuomo said the new law named after Jay J. is important for “immediately ensuring that repeat offenders are met with heightened penalties that match the seriousness of their actions.”
The measure was sponsored by Sen. Timothy Kennedy and Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, both Erie County Democrats.
Jay J. suffered 11 separate fractures from beatings by his father, now an inmate in a state prison in Franklin County. Bolvin has faced a coordinated campaign by Jay J.’s family members whenever he tries to seek early release before his maximum sentence is served.
Victims or their family members have created grass-roots legislative campaigns to enact laws on issues ranging from prescription drug sales and how the state treats mentally ill individuals who commit crimes to crackdowns on drunken driving and texting-while-driving laws.
Among those personally lobbying for the new repeat child offender law were Retzer and his wife Christine, who live in Cheektowaga, and his brother Joseph Retzer and his wife Tabitha of Kenmore, the boy’s grandparents who today have legal custody of the 3-year-old.
“It was the passion,” Kevin Retzer said Monday of the family’s personal lobbying campaign.
“As the family, it was our relative who did it, so we were willing to rearrange our lives for Jay J. On a personal note for me, I’d see stories on TV and say, ‘How sad.’ Then when it became Jay J, it dawned on me that the somebody who had to get involved was me.”
In 2012, most members of the Legislature signed up as sponsors of the bill. It passed the Senate but died in the Assembly, a house with a liberal tradition where criminal sentencing laws generally receive more scrutiny than in the Senate.
The two Retzer brothers this year learned the key to passage of most bills in Albany: compromise. So out went their campaign for one of the bill’s provisions: an automatic 25-year prison sentence for someone convicted three times of abusing a child. “There were things I thought were common sense and how could people be against this,” Kevin Retzer said.
The family returned to Albany three times this session, with the young boy accompanying them. “We wanted to physically stand in front of them with the message that this isn’t an abstract. Somebody got hurt, and here he is,” Kevin Retzer said.
“Jay J. was somebody that, by being there in Albany and being out in the media, he himself told his story, which is a tragic and horrific one, but with the passage of this law will at least have a silver lining,” said Kennedy, the Buffalo Democrat who pushed the bill through the Senate both years.
Demands for more facts about the situation led the family to state records, which led them to information they presented to lawmakers about more than 200 children being abused each day in New York state. Requests for information about prison incarceration costs associated with the stronger penalties led the family to present the soaring medical bills the state has been paying to treat the boy. Adding to their efforts was an advance-placement government class at John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, whose students wrote letters, made ribbons and placed appeals on their social media sites encouraging people to spread the word about the legislation.
“I give all the credit in the world to the family … They would not take no for an answer,” said Kennedy.