‘This is my personal quest’: Northampton resident fights for rights of sexual assault survivors 

  • Marissa Hoechstetter speaks at a Feb. 7 New York City Council meeting. NYC Council/Jeffrey WZ Reed

  • Marissa Hoechstetter, of Northampton, at Pulaski Park in Northampton, Monday, April 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marissa Hoechstetter, of Northampton, at Pulaski Park in Northampton, Monday, April 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marissa Hoechstetter, of Northampton, stands in Pulaski Park, Monday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marissa Hoechstetter, of Northampton, at Pulaski Park in Northampton, Monday, April 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2019 7:04:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Marissa Hoechstetter was registering her twin daughters for kindergarten in Northampton a few years ago, she had to present their birth certificates. In doing so, she noticed something she hadn’t caught before: Robert Hadden, her OB-GYN in New York City who she says assaulted her, was listed on the document as the “attendant at delivery.”

She was shocked. “I have to work hard to separate that traumatic experience from the most joyful experience of my life,” Hoechstetter said during a recent phone interview. “For me, this was an important physical reminder of that — and I wanted it changed.”

For years, Hoechstetter has wanted to get Hadden’s name off the birth certificates belonging to her daughters, now 7, and for the past six months, she has been advocating for New York City legislation that would allow her, and others, to make that change.

It could happen soon. On Thursday, the New York City Council voted 47-0 in favor of a bill that would, as of Jan. 1, 2020, allow people to redact the name of a physician from a birth certificate if the doctor’s license has been revoked or surrendered. After the vote, Mayor Bill de Blasio has 30 days to either sign it into law, veto it, or do nothing and it will automatically become law.

The office of council member Mark Levine, who sponsored the bill, said it is the first bill of its kind in the county.

Hoechstetter was a patient of Hadden’s from 2009 to 2012 at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian hospital facilities, where she said he sexually assaulted her. She currently lives in Northampton and works in higher education fundraising.

In 2015, she decided to report what happened, and she told the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which responded that too much time had elapsed and her case fell outside the statute of limitations, she said. As a BuzzFeed News article details, when Hoechstetter reported Hadden, prosecutors were already negotiating a plea deal with him, and he later pleaded guilty to charges connected to two other women. His punishment: losing his medical license.

“I knew I’d never see Hadden again after watching him plead guilty in court. So why do I have to keep seeing his name on the birth certificates?” Hoechstetter said in her testimony before the New York City Council committee on Health in February. “I knew that, to find some closure or acknowledgment of my pain, I had to get his name off of those documents.”

So for two years, she tried calling the hospital and reaching out multiple times to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, asking if the certificates could be reissued.

“People were paralyzed by a lack of precedent. So, they just didn’t know what to do,” Hoechstetter said. After many attempts and no success, last summer she turned to the New York City Council for help and reached out to Levine, who is chairman of the council’s Committee on Health and sponsored the bill.

At first, not all the council members were on board; Hoechstetter had to work to get some votes. “Once they heard my story and what I was about, they were like, ‘why would we not support this?’” she said.

Over the past few years, Hoechstetter has become an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual assault and spoken out against abuse by medical professionals, writing for a variety of publications. “The pain comes randomly: when I see the Cesarean scar he stitched, when I present my daughters’ birth certificates bearing his name for school registration, when I read media coverage of the allegations by nearly 200 women against USC gynecologist George Tyndall,” she wrote in Ms. magazine, along with Smith College professor Carrie N. Baker.

Currently, Hoechstetter is the only plaintiff named in a lawsuit filed in December and brought by a group of women against Columbia University and its related hospitals, alleging that the institutions knew about Hadden’s sexual abuse since the 1990s and failed to act. Recently, three other women joined, bringing the plaintiff total to 20, Hoechstetter said.

“I do feel that I have an obligation to use what I have as a position of privilege to do this advocacy,” Hoechstetter said of her work. “I have a supportive spouse. I don’t have endless resources, but I can afford to go to New York … There are women, for example, who were assaulted by this doctor for whom English is not their first language. They might not feel as comfortable coming forward.”

She added, “I need to use my position to advance this issue … But it’s a choice. It takes me away from my family. I’ve had to take off of work. I use my own money to do it.”

Still, the passage of the recent bill is a victory for her. “This is my heart. This is my personal quest … I’m amazed that we did it,” she said.

She added, “To me, it’s symbolic. It says a lot about my experience and the sort of long trail of things that abuse can leave in your life that you might not even know about until years later when you get out a document.”

Hoechstetter said she knows nine other women who want to follow her lead — changing their children’s birth certificates — and soon they may be able to do it.

“I do think this is an example of government listening to survivors,” she said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com

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