A Child’s Best Defense Is Her Voice. Here’s How We Amplify It
POLICIES THAT HELP KIDS
“A guy called Officer Friendly comes to school and teaches us not to answer the door when your parents are not home and don’t talk to strangers. They don’t teach us about people like my cousin Brian. I thought people like Brian jumped out of bushes and attacked you at night.”
Those are the words out of my diary when I was 12 years old. For six years of my life I was sexually abused and raped by two different men. I didn’t break my silence until I was 13 and being interviewed in a Children’s Advocacy Center. The men that abused me threatened me for years not to tell. Told me that no one would believe me.
Looking back on my childhood, I thought what could have saved me years of abuse and the answer was easy. Had someone taught me not to keep my abuse a secret—that adults would believe me—I am certain I would have found the courage to tell someone long before that fateful day at the CAC.
Which is why I went to my state legislature and demanded a change: the change that would become knowns as “Erin’s Law.” Erin’s Law requires personal body safety to be taught children in kindergarten through 12th grade. The education programs required by Erin’s Law teaches kids the difference between safe and unsafe touches, safe and unsafe secrets, how to speak up and tell if you are ever abused.
I first fought to pass Erin’s Law in my home state of Illinois and for the past six years I have gone state-to-state testifying to lawmakers. As of August 2016, Erin’s Law has been passed in 28 states. It is pending in 18 more. Only four states lack a bill sponsor: North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
Each state has its own way of requiring it. Some states have in-house staff teaching it (social workers, psychologists, health teachers, etc.), while other states have used an outside agency to teach it, like a Children’s Advocacy Center.
In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act. In part of that bill, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced the federal version of Erin’s Law, requiring funding for Erin’s Law. Allowing schools to use these funds to hire agencies, purchase curriculum, etc. on the prevention of child abuse. These funds will become available in the 2017-2018 school year.
How can CACs help? CACs can start by contacting lawmakers in their states to support Erin’s Law. An easy way of doing that is spending a minute to fill out this online form. I also encourage CACs leaders to reach out to schools and see how they can assist in helping schools educate kids on personal body safety.
There’s evidence this law is working, too. I have had teachers, police departments, and parents all contact me telling me about a child disclosing abuse after they went through the prevention education required under Erin’s Law. A recent article came out in May that describes a child disclosing after an Erin’s Law presentation.
Erin Merryn, MSW, is an author, activist, and a speaker, and the force behind Erin's Law: model legislation passed in 28 states requiring age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education in schools. She earned her masters in social work in 2009. She is the author of Stolen Innocence, Living for Today, and An Unimaginable Act.