Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010
When the Abuser Is No Stranger: The Quest for Erin's Law
By Wendy Cole / Chicago
Throughout her school years, Erin Merryn of Schaumburg, Ill., received plenty of lessons in the dangers her elders thought she could encounter during her childhood. She was taught how to ride out a tornado, instructed in the eight steps for turning down illegal drugs, and told how to react to a friendly stranger who might try to abduct her. But nothing prepared her for two traumatizing events that have turned Merryn, now 25, into an activist, determined to prevent the same thing from happening to other children.
The first episode began on a warm May night in 1991. Merryn, then 6, was excited about her first sleepover with her kindergarten classmate Ashley. After an evening of playing with Ashley's dollhouse and watching The Little Mermaid, the girls went to bed in Ashley's room. Merryn lay on blankets on the floor next to Ashley, who was in her bed. In the wee hours of the night, Ashley's uncle "Richard" (not his real name), who lived in the house with his niece, appeared in the darkened room. He sat down in front of Merryn and put his finger to his lips signaling her to remain quiet. Seconds later his hand was down her pants. Merryn was as bewildered as she was frightened. "I didn't understand what was going on," she says. "I just stared at the ceiling waiting for it to end." Her friend slept through the assault, and Merryn remained silent. (Read why most child abuse goes unreported)
Merryn kept her confusion to herself. She didn't want to stop visiting her friend but tried to find times when Richard wasn't around. She wasn't always successful. The man, then in his late 20s, abused her several more times in the next year, including, she says, raping her during a daytime visit when she thought he wouldn't be home.
When Merryn eventually confided in Ashley about what had happened, her friend was not surprised; in fact, the scene was depressingly familiar to her. But Ashley begged her not to say anything because Richard had told her they would "lose the house" if the girls told anyone. Says Merryn: "[Ashley] made me pinky promise not to say anything."
Merryn's family, including her two sisters, moved to another neighborhood in the same town when Merryn was 8, and she stopped seeing Ashley. But at age 11, Merryn's second nightmare began. At a family gathering at her grandparents' lake house, she awoke in the middle of the night to find her cousin "Brian" (again, not his real name), then 13, lying next to her with his hands down her underwear. He continued to abuse her on and off for nearly two years, she says, often at holidays and celebrations with her close-knit extended family. He cornered her in basements, bathrooms and bedrooms, always reminding her that she shouldn't bother telling anyone because no one would believe her. It ended only after a chance conversation between Merryn and one of her sisters, who blurted out one day that their cousin Brian was "gross." Merryn realized he had been molesting her sister too. They talked for hours about what had happened, and the next day told their parents about their shared horror. (See Gary Glitter's sex scandal.)
The family pressed charges against Brian, who ultimately admitted to three counts of sexual abuse. The case never went to trial, and Brian received some counseling, but no punishment. The two families have ceased having contact.
Merryn's experiences belie the more common parental fears of "stranger danger." Young children tend to hear a lot of messages about avoiding interactions with people they don't know, when in reality they are far more likely to face harm from a relative or family friend. Victims of abuse know their perpetrators 80% to 90% of the time, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Read "Is Child Abuse On the Decline?"
See the sex abuse in Israel's ultra-orthodox community.
For a long time, Merryn didn't know what to do with her anger and fear as an abused child. She spent one afternoon at a park breaking discarded bottles. She didn't tell any adults what had happened to her. "I didn't realize that what had happened wasn't my fault. I didn't know the difference between a safe and an unsafe secret," Merryn says. Later, she helped herself heal by writing two books about her experiences (Stolen Innocence and Living for Today).
Now she is moving into political action. Earlier this year, Merryn reached out to Illinois legislators about the need for schools to adopt age-appropriate curriculum on child sexual abuse. Republican state senator Tim Bivins championed what became known as "Erin's Law," which passed the state senate unanimously. The legislation, which is expected to be taken up by the House in November, would create a task force to devise strategies for reducing child sexual abuse throughout the state and permit school boards to implement similar measures. The aim is to bring into the classroom (for students from pre-K through fifth grade) what is seldom discussed openly: that even trusted family members and friends can pose a threat to their well-being. Teachers would also be trained to recognize warning signs that their students have been sexually abused, including mood swings or acting distant at odd times, and be able to tell students where to go for assistance if they have been victimized. (See the church sex abuse scandals around the world.)
A poised and charismatic speaker, Merryn has traveled the country making speeches to law-enforcement and abuse-prevention groups. And she will soon tell her story on Oprah, which she hopes will give her effort the jolt it needs to become a nationwide movement.
Erin's Law would not be the first statewide effort to tackle this issue. Ohio and New Jersey have statewide mandates to implement abuse-prevention programs in their schools, according to Finkelhor, and Texas passed a similar prevention measure in 2009. The problem, Finkelhor says, is getting schools to focus on the issue at a time when resources are limited and their priorities are on beefing up academic programs — which has put ancillary efforts such as anti-bullying and mental-health issues on the back burner. "I don't think schools would be resistant to the idea that this prevention is needed," he says. "But there are so many other demands on them these days." Nor are they likely to have the resources to provide the kind of intensive curriculum that is necessary. A guest speaker for 45 minutes wouldn't be very helpful, says Finkelhor: "The best programs are very intensive and expensive."(Read about a child abuse case in Vietnam.)
The attention on sexual abuse of children in recent years, along with increases in the numbers of law-enforcement and child-protection personnel, has made an impact. According to Finkelhor, national child maltreatment data show that the rate of sex abuse against children under 18 declined 58% between 1992 and 2008, when the number of substantiated cases was reported to be a still disturbing 68,500. As Finkelhor notes, "It's still a major source of trauma and long-term dysfunction in children."
Merryn, who got a master's degree in social work, focusing on sexual-abuse prevention, is determined to keep up her campaign to make her cause a national movement. "I don't want parents to think they need to put a bubble around their kids 24/7," she says. "We need to give kids the knowledge and tools they need to come forward when something happens. I had my innocence taken. I don't want it to happen to anyone else."
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