Not every kid in America is sexually abused, but it happens often enough to require states to step in. Now under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly is H.B. 72, a version of Erin’s Law not unlike the ones that have so far been enacted in 26 states. The General Assembly should pass this bill in its current form and take action to help end the sexual abuse of Maryland children.
Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused not just once but twice as a child growing up in Dixon, Illinois, launched a campaign several years ago from state to state, trying to get legislatures to pass what is known as “Erin’s Law.” It first passed in Illinois back in 2013 and has been in front of Maryland lawmakers a few times already, receiving an unfavorable report from the House Judiciary committee in 2014 and an unfavorable report last year from the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee.
This year’s attempt, introduced by Delegate Eric Luedtke, would order the Maryland State Board of Education to create standards for a program on body safety education. This would help to educate kids on, say, the difference between safe secrets and unsafe secrets, between safe touches and unsafe touches, and so on. It would certainly empower them to speak up and tell if they’re being sexually abused, which will, in turn, spare other kids from sexual abuse.
Why is such a program needed in schools? Because it’s frequently a family member who’s doing the abusing. That was true in Ms Merryn’s case, and according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by a parent or relative. So, I would be delighted if this responsibility could be left to families, but it can’t. Schools, where students spend so much of their lives with people who truly care about them, need to play the right role.
Some states have said Erin’s Law is an “unfunded mandate” and tells schools what they have to do without providing the funds to help them accomplish the task. That changes a little under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in December by President Obama. Title II provides funds teachers could use to develop and implement an age-appropriate body safety curriculum, and Title IV provides funds for school districts to assess their students’ needs in the area of, among other things, “school conditions for student learning in order to create a healthy and safe school environment.” Erin’s Law is no longer an “unfunded mandate.”
Ms Merryn’s telling of the abuse by a cousin when she was only 11 is eye-opening, and I invite all of you to read it in her book, An Unimaginable Act: Overcoming and Preventing Child Abuse through Erin’s Law, available for Kindle for about $10, here. In addition to that book and a few others, which are more like journals, Ms Merryn has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and a host of other TV shows, engaged audiences from coast to coast with her public speaking, and testified before state legislatures in several states.
The governor of Alabama issued a report just last month about Erin’s Law in that state. The report shows strong evidence of inter-agency cooperation within the state as well as strong partnerships between schools and community organizations. It also touches briefly on opportunities for federal grants that can be used to develop an appropriate curriculum.
As of our publication date, Erin’s Law has been enacted in more than two dozen states, and is under consideration in almost every other state. Ms Merryn said she won’t stop crusading for Erin’s Law until it passes in all 50 states. She was in Annapolis on February 4 (video 30′).
In writing her book, she said she was at first concerned about reliving the rape and molestation that left her, as a young elementary and middle school student, failing hundreds of tests at school and experiencing trouble sleeping because of nightmares and trouble concentrating because of daytime flashbacks that came out of nowhere, much as they do for returning war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But as she prayed about speaking out and becoming one of this country’s most powerful advocates for children’s voices, she said she heard the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles for the first time:
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up …
Your history of silence
Won’t do you any good
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave …
She had always excelled at giving speeches in school, but “It was like Sara was speaking right to me when she sang that silence you have lived in won’t do you any good,” Ms Merryn wrote in her book. Since that defining moment, she has found her voice and is using it to provide powerful testimony across the US, testimony that is incredibly consistent in its advocacy for children.
I’ve watched her testify before, it must be, 10 state legislatures or school groups at this point. Her story of abuse is haunting in that it snowballed and led to her being labeled as a kid with a learning disability, because her teachers failed to recognize the sexual abuse she was suffering.
This could be the story of any child I know. Any child who tries hard on academics and puts in a good effort at school and with homework but seems to get a “D” or “F” on test after test or a 16 on her ACT could be that kid.
See, teachers in our public schools know how to prepare kids for tornadoes, fires, bullying, drugs, or any number of other disasters that could befall them. It seems schools go on lockdown or have a bomb threat so often that I’ve stopped writing the stories anymore. And still, over 3 million children in the US are survivors of sexual abuse, many more than will ever have to evacuate a burning building or duck and cover to keep safe from a tornado. This is a disaster for which teachers and schools need to prepare students.
In describing the warning signs, she lists a sudden decline in school performance or anger issues that seem inappropriate. Her ACT score wasn’t unlike other test failures that came in 10 years of schooling, mostly due to interruptions in her train of thought while answering questions, interruptions caused by the aforementioned flashbacks or anxiety.
She grew depressed, withdrawn, and temperamental, once swallowing a handful of Tylenols in trying to commit suicide. She writes that she induced vomiting after realizing how much pain her death would cause her family, but the point of Erin’s Law is that schools and teachers need to be trained how to recognize these signs and kids need to be told the truth about speaking up so the situation doesn’t escalate to that point.
She vividly describes a recurring dream of her walking in a courtyard encircled by houses. They all have the lights on, but no one sees her walking. She now interprets those lights in her dream as the many warning signs she presented to teachers and other professionals that were missed when she was a child afraid to speak up.
While teachers for many years spent hundreds of hours fretting over young Erin’s anger issues and behavioral problems, they never asked the key questions or probed for the details she thought, as an 8-year-old girl, that she had to keep secret to protect her friends and family—and indeed herself—from great harm threatened by her abusers.
“This is our secret,” the abusers tell kids, she says. “You have no proof. No one will believe you.” And without trusted adults telling them otherwise, that’s what kids believe. “It’s crucial that children learn to understand and report sexual abuse,” she says, “and not to feel ashamed.
“Don’t deny yourself the right to talk about this. Shameful childhood secrets come back to haunt adults when they’re 30 and up. Don’t think you are alone in your pain, since there are people around you wherever you are who have survived similar traumas.
“My life is not defined by evil but by how I have risen above it,” she concludes.
Let’s not throw out Erin’s Law again in Maryland. Rise above whatever concerns you may have and get your delegate and senator to help our teachers and other professionals see the lights they so often miss in today’s young people. Pass H.B. 72 this year.