Erin’s Law to mandate sexual abuse curriculum in Illinois public schools

Ciara McCarthy, Reporter

Three years ago, Erin Merryn quit her job to try to pass a law that legislators told her no one would touch: child sexual assault.

Today, Erin’s Law has been passed in five states and is spreading quickly around the county.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed House Bill 6193, or Erin’s Law, on Jan. 24 mandating sexual abuse education and prevention curriculum in public schools statewide for students in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. The law, which is named after Merryn and inspired by her experiences, aims to teach children to avoid encounters that may lead to sexual abuse and to report any instances of abuse they’ve endured.

“It’s going to give those kids the message to speak up about this, to know that they’re not at fault, to know that they’re not going to be in trouble,” Merryn told The Daily.

Merryn, a native of Schaumburg, Ill., began to speak out about her experiences of child abuse when she was a senior in high school. When Merryn was 6 years old, she was molested by her neighbor, a friend’s uncle. The abuse continued for two and a half years.

When Merryn’s family moved, Merryn thought she had escaped her traumatic past. But the abuse began again, this time at the hands of a family member. Merryn endured this abuse from age 11 to 13, all while keeping silent about her suffering.

“I’m a prime example of the fact that these predators can keep kids silent,” she said.

Kids who are sexually abused often keep quiet about their experiences because of threats from their abusers, Merryn said.

Quinn signed the law at the Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County in Hoffman Estates, where Merryn received counseling for her experiences.

“My most important duty as governor is to make sure every child in Illinois is safe and healthy,” Quinn said in a news release.

Mark Parr, executive director of the local CAC, said Erin’s Law was vital because children abused in their early lives have no access to education about abuse through schools, and their families often fail to inform them.

At this CAC, 22 percent of clientele are 5 years old and younger, and 37 percent are aged 6 to 12. The local CAC had 360 new referrals in 2012, making a total of 507 children altogether, Parr said.

State Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) sponsored the bill in the Illinois Senate and then-State Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls) sponsored it in the House.

The law is effective immediately, and requires all school districts to implement the curriculum by the 2013-2014 school year.

Each district will create its own curriculum, using resources and research provided by the Erin’s Law task force. At Evanston/Skokie District 65, the special services office will likely implement the law, district spokeswoman Pat Markham said.

Prior to the law’s passage, only secondary schools were required to include sexual assault and abuse awareness education, according to Quinn’s news release.

Merryn is committed to passing Erin’s Law in all 50 states. Earlier version of the law have already been passed by Missouri, Indiana, Maine and Michigan, and Merryn said at least 15 more states will introduce the measure by 2016. She also has written a book about her experiences that will be published this fall. Merryn said she remains committed to spreading her message and teaching awareness to protect children.

“I can’t go back and reclaim what was stolen from me,” Merryn said. “But I can preserve the innocence of other children and that’s what I decided to put my focus on.”