Children from prekindergarten to grade 12 in Illinois will now be taught about sexual assault and abuse, thanks to a law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn Thursday.
Quinn visited the Children's Advocacy Center in Hoffman Estates to sign Erin's Law, which mandates that schools statewide teach age-appropriate sexual assault and abuse awareness and prevention classes. Until now, only secondary schools were required to educate students on the topic.
"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, we all understand, especially at this time in our country's history, how important it is to make sure that our children are safe from sexual abuse," Quinn said. "Those who are victims, we want to make sure we not only protect them, but help them become survivors."
The law is named after sex assault survivor Erin Merryn, who was the driving force behind getting the law passed.
The 27-year-old Schaumburg native believes it will teach kids to speak up if they are assaulted or being sexually abused.
"This is going to send a message to every sex offender out there: You cannot keep kids silent," she said. "All of them should think twice before abusing another child, before thinking about abusing a child for the first time," she said.
Merryn was sexually abused and raped by a friend's uncle when she was between 6 and 8. She was molested by a cousin when she was between 11 and 13.
Merryn said she found motivation from God to quit her job three years ago and dedicate her life to helping child sexual assault and abuse victims find a voice she never had growing up. Since then she testified four times in front of the state legislature in Springfield, and faced skeptics.
"I'm overjoyed," she said Thursday. "I am just filled with so much gratitude to the legislators in Illinois who didn't drop the ball on this, who saw the importance of educating kids and giving them a voice."
Merryn said she asked Quinn to sign the bill at the Children's Advocacy Center because she began healing after first visiting the center at age 13.
"This brings my story full circle," she said, her eyes tearing.
Quinn called Merryn "a perfect example of what one person can do to make a difference." He invited her to come with him to a National Governors Association meeting in Washington D.C. next month to discuss the law, which has already been implemented in four other states.
State Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates said it wasn't easy to pass Erin's Law, as it is an unfunded mandate.
However, in the end, there was tremendous bipartisan support.
Crespo noted that more than half of the members on the state's elementary and secondary education committee said they knew a family member who had been sexually abused.
"We're very lucky that we had Erin advocating for this," he said. "Sometimes it takes a remarkable, special person to tell their story for people to understand what it means."
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins of Chicago sponsored the bill with State Rep. Jerry Mitchell of Rock Falls. She commended Merryn for turning her pain into purpose.
"I was so proud that Illinois is taking a bold step not only to equip our children with the awareness of the threat of sexual abuse, but also to give them the knowledge that they're innocent and their self-worth is worth our protection," Collins said.
Quinn said he hopes 2013 will be a year of Erin's Laws across America and he plans to continue working with Merryn to help her inform others of the legislation.
"So many survivors carry stigma and shame and blame themselves, like this was their fault," Merryn said. "My innocence was killed, my trust was taken, but I reclaimed my voice and I want every survivor of sexual abuse to do the same."