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New state law requires schools to teach sexual abuse prevention

ErMerryn Schaumburg Ill. looks down Illinois Gov. PQuinn as he signs bill called Erin's Law child advocacy center Hoffman Estates

Erin Merryn, of Schaumburg, Ill., looks down at Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn as he signs a bill called Erin's Law at a child advocacy center in Hoffman Estates, Ill., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The law requires all Illinois public schools to have sexual assault and abuse prevention and awareness programs. Illinois joins four other states that have already passed versions of Erin's Law _ Indiana, Maine, Michigan and Missouri. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, George LeClaire) MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, TV OUT

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By the numbers

1 in 4

Girls who are sexually abused before age 18.

1 in 6

Boys who are sexually abused before age 18.

42 million

Residents of the U.S. who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

3 million

Survivors who still are under age 18.

$35 billion

Estimated annual public cost of child sexual abuse.


Victims of child sexual and serious physical abuse who were served by children’s advocacy centers in Illinois during 2011.

93 percent

Segment of abused children whose attackers are in positions of trust or authority over them.

Sources: National Institute of Justice, Illinois State Board of Education Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:29PM

Erin Merryn thought she was alone.

Growing up in Schaumburg, the little girl was repeatedly accosted, she says, by a neighbor who began sexually abusing her when she was 6 years old.

He warned her not to tell, vowing to come and get her if she did.

“I would fear when I was a little kid that he was hiding in my closets,” said Merryn, now 27.

Her family moved out of the neighborhood, which ended the terror. But at her new school, Merryn was labeled behavior-disordered. She threw tantrums and once punched her hand through a window, unable to find anywhere else to funnel her shame and rage.

“Little did they know I was trying to stay away from a perpetrator,” she said.

And any relief she felt at leaving the predatory neighbor behind was short-lived. When she was 11, an older cousin picked up where that abuser had left off, frightening Merryn into silence for another two years.

“No matter where we were, he would find a way to corner me,” she said.

It wasn’t until Merryn discovered he also was abusing her little sister that she ended her years of silence.

Legal matter

She talks about it a lot now, including four separate appearances before the General Assembly. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn last week signed “Erin’s Law,” enabling legislation that requires public schools to provide age-appropriate sexual abuse awareness and prevention education to junior high and elementary school children.

“It’s huge,” Merryn said the day after the law was signed. “I worked very hard on this, and I wasn’t going to give up.”

Members of a task force established by the General Assembly two years ago learned that by the time they reach age 18, one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually victimized. Merryn hopes to change those numbers, and says if prevention programming had been available when she was starting in grammar school, her experience would surely have been different.

“I guarantee you,” she said. “I knew (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), and DARE taught me to avoid drugs.”

That training led her to decline when marijuana was offered to her, Merryn said. And when a man one day pulled up in a van and extended a handful of money through the open window toward Merryn and a friend as they sat operating a lemonade stand, she knew to stay away, because of what she had learned in the Stranger Danger school program.

Task force member Jennifer Gabrenya, director of programs at Family Shelter Service in Wheaton, said the undertaking will address the issue with both kids and educators.

“Children can only do so much, because they’re little,” Gabrenya said. “You’re really just helping them understand that they have the right to say no, and how to identify an adult they can trust. ... We as adults know that, but kids don’t always have that understanding.”

Childhood sexual abuse is far more common than many people realize, noted state Rep. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville, a cosponsor of the new legislation. Senger said when primary and secondary education committee chairwoman Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, asked the group whether they or someone they know well had been abused in childhood, “a lot of us had.”

New tools

The new requirement won’t necessarily compel teachers to broach the subject, Senger said, but it will show them some of the signs to look for in kids who are being abused.

“Especially the young ones who are being abused, they don’t know how to deal with that,” she said. “They’re scared, obviously.”

Gabrenya said adults often are at a loss when they encounter a child who is being abused, but having a connection with a trustworthy grown-up can make a huge difference.

“It’s up to us to keep kids safe (and) to make ourselves available to them,” she said.

Proponents of the new law found qualms, largely arising from many schools’ struggles with existing time and funding limitations.

“There were some concerns from some legislators, after I testified, that said, ‘How are schools going to pay for this?’” Merryn said. “We have children’s advocacy centers and YMCAs that will come in ... the programs we have come into schools once a year for an hour.

“We’re pulling researched programs and saying, ‘Pick the one that fits you best.’”

Senger pointed out that the new initiative just expands on something being done at upper grade levels now.

“Because this is already part of their process, I don’t see this as incrementally that much more, that they can’t fit it in,” she said.

The General Assembly enacted a moratorium on new mandates in 2011, Senger said, “but this one got through, because we’re not looking at it as a mandate.”

Local schools have not yet weighed in on how they’ll incorporate Erin’s Law. Spokeswomen for Naperville District 203 and Indian Prairie District 204 said administrators would need to review the legislation before formulating a plan for adhering to the requirements.

“Typically for a state mandate that impacts curriculum, our administrators look at age appropriate ways to incorporate the required content,” Janet Buglio from District 204 said in an email.

Learning curve

Supporters of Erin’s Law realize there is still work to do. Merryn said some DuPage County schools have had child abuse prevention programming in place for years, including a school in Medinah.

“I went and watched that program, and it was great,” she said. “Other schools are very resistant.”

If a child is abused once, it is highly likely to recur.

“This is about protecting children’s minds and innocence from being silenced by a perpetrator,” Merryn said.

According to Gabrenya, it’s likely the new endeavor will trigger significant response once it has been put in place.

“A lot of times what we tend to see when you do preventative programming and you raise awareness is you initially see reporting go up,” she said. “When you’re looking at that big cultural shift, that’s one of the things that you want to have happen.”

Merryn, who plans to press for her law in other states, looks forward to having a role in the shift. Senger supports her efforts.

“I give her a lot of credit for going out and doing this,” Senger said. “Because it’s something nobody wants to talk about.”

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