At a young age Schaumburg resident Erin Merryn’s world was turned upside down. When she was only six years old, she was molested and raped by an adult neighbor.
“I came from a good family, I wasn’t one of those kids who had the divorced parents, and I didn’t live in poverty,” said Merryn. “As a little kid going off to school I met my best friend and six years old at a slumber party, woke up to her uncle sexually abusing me. I was threatened. ‘I’ll come get you at night if you tell anybody, no one will believe you.’”
The abuse continued until her family moved when she was eight and a half. But then at 11, the unthinkable happened again, and she was molested by her teenage cousin until she was 13.
Both times Erin knew her abuser, which is the case in the majority of sexual abuse cases. In fact, 93% of child sexual assault victims know the perpetrator.
“It was never the stranger that hurt me in my life. It was people I knew,” said Merryn. “I realized we have to give kids a voice.”
Since first speaking out about her abuse 14 years ago, she’s made it her mission to do just that. She’s lobbied to pass laws on sexual abuse education in all 50 states, succeeding in five including right here in Illinois. On January 24th, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed Erin’s Law, requiring all public schools to teach Sexual Abuse Prevention Education as early as pre-K continuing until high school.
“We need to empower them through age appropriate curriculum, through books, through role play, on how to talk to kids about this, and educate the kids on what a safe touch is, unsafe touch, safe secret, unsafe secret,” said Merryn.
Districts can either train teachers on how to educate their students, or use and pay for existing research-based curriculum. Some local organizations, like the YWCA, have had such programs in place for years, offering anti-abuse classes to those in kindergarten through college.
“Sometimes they experience violence in different ways,” said Kathy Kempke, Manager of Sexual Violence and Support Services at the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. “Sometimes it’s bullying, and knowing about that and what they can do and how to problem solve, is huge in making them safer as they age and as they get older.”
Another facet to Erin’s Law is making sure teachers and school administrators are trained to know what to do when a child comes forward. Joy Tanimura-Winquist is a Prevention Educator at Family Shelter Services in Nearby Wheaton. She travels to schools all across DuPage County teaching kids about sexual abuse, and knows first-hand the need for teachers to be prepared.
“I actually used to teach high school and actually what made me make the transition of what I do now, is I had a couple of students disclose abuse to me and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “As an agency, partnering with teachers and teaching what they need to look for and what to say is so helpful. I know as a 23-year-old, I just didn’t know what to do.”
Parents can also play a role in ending this silent epidemic. Watch your kids for signs and don’t just teach them about stranger danger.
“The most important thing is that kids know it’s not their fault,” said Kempke. “Parents really have to listen. I think it’s really hard being a parent and your kids are asking lots of things and it’s hard to stop each time and say ‘Tell me more,’ but that’s what they need to do. They need to be heard.”
“Don’t wait until your little six-year-old or your ten-year-old comes to you at 35 and says, ‘Mom, guess what the neighbor was doing, guess what happened at that sleep over” or ‘Guess what grandpa was doing for five years.’ Talk to your kids about this. Don’t just address stranger danger. Don’t wait until it’s too late,” said Merryn.
Both School Districts 203 and 204 are working on ways to incorporate Erin’s Law in their curriculum.
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