Legislature Weighs ‘Erin’s Law’

This week, Erin Merryn will be visiting Alaska to promote a law that provides age-appropriate sexual abuse education to children in public schools. Erin’s Law, named after the 29-year-old from Illinois, has passed in 11 states and is pending in 26 others, including Alaska. And we should warn listeners: this story talks frankly about sexual abuse and rape.

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A neighbor began sexually abusing Erin Merryn when she was just six years old.

Photo courtesy Erin Merryn.
Photo courtesy Erin Merryn.

“I was abused from ages six to eight and half, repeatedly abused by the neighbor up the street who was my best friend’s uncle who lived in the home,” Merryn said. “And what started off as fondling turned to rape as a six and half year-old. And like I said – didn’t know how to speak up and tell and we moved only to wake up at age 11 to now a family member abusing me. And that continued until I was 13.”

Merryn finally told a trusted adult after she found out her little sister was also being sexually abused by the same family member. When she was a senior in high school she published a book about her experience. When she was 25, she made it her mission to give kids the voice she never had as a child, campaigning for Erin’s Law. The law requires age-appropriate child sexual abuse training in grades K-12 in public schools. It passed in Illinois in 2013.  She says it’s important in every state because of national statistics that show one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused.

“In America alone there are 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Four million of those are kids,” Merryn said.

But only one in 10 tells their story, Merryn says.  In Alaska, experts say the percentage of children who are sexually abused is likely higher than in other states. Nearly 2,000 children were reportedly sexually abused in Alaska in 2013.

State Representative Geran Tarr, who represents the neighborhoods of Airport Heights and Russian Jack and Mountain View in Anchorage, is sponsoring House Bill 233, the Alaska version of Erin’s law to try and change those numbers. A constituent brought the law to Tarr’s attention while she was working on issues related to family health and safe communities and she realized it could help stop the persistent problem of sexual abuse in Alaska.

“Our rates put us in the top five for child sexual abuse and it’s such a life-changing and devastating problem that I became very motivated to work on this issue and look for opportunities where we could protect children and prevent that next generation of children from experiencing child sexual abuse,” Tarr said.

House Bill 233 would provide child sexual abuse training to empower children to speak up if something inappropriate happens, Tarr says, and train teachers and trusted adults to recognize signs that a child is being abused as well as help children out of unsafe situations. Tarr says the law would be a game changer because the training would reach more than 90 percent of Alaska’s youth who attend public schools and the adults who spend a lot of time with them.

“We’ve often been on the reactionary end of this problem. This problem being more broadly domestic violence and sexual assault. So we’ve been dealing with it through the court system. We’ve been dealing with it through victim services and domestic violence shelters,” Tarr said. “This is an opportunity to really try and get in on the prevention side of the equation and try to break that cycle and intervene at a time when you can more successfully prevent it from happening again.”

Tarr says the Alaska Children’s Trust and the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault support for the bill, among others. House Bill 233 has been referred to the House Education Committee, where Wasilla Representative Lynn Gattis is Chair. She says she believes the bill would be a step toward grappling with a difficult problem that is hurting Alaska’s kids.

“What we’re saying is, first of all, raise your hand and say Alaska’s got a problem,” Gattis said. “Number two: how are we going to fix that problem? Is this going to be a part of how we fix that problem?”

Merryn says she hopes so.

“I was informed the high rates of sexual abuse in Alaska and I was shocked,” Merryn said. “Anyone that tells me that sexual abuse is not an issue where they live in their community, they’re living with blinders on.”

She says it’s time for communities to put kids first and take those blinders off, and she hopes Alaska will be the next state to commit to Erin’s Law. Merryn will be in Anchorage talking about her law on Tuesday and Wednesday and in Juneau at the end of the week where she hopes to meet with Governor Sean Parnell and legislators.

Tarr has bipartisan support from 10 other legislators for House Bill 233. A Hearing is scheduled for the bill Friday at 8am.

Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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