Schaumburg grad, sex abuse victim campaigns for 'Erin's Law'

Whether facing students, counselors or politicians, Erin Merryn tells her audience to think back to their elementary school days.

Most hands go up when asked if they remember evacuating school buses, "stranger danger" or say no to drugs. Midwesterners recall tornado drills. West Coasters remember earthquake drills.

But nobody moves when the 25-year-old Schaumburg woman asks who learned "how to get away and tell today" and other protections against childhood sexual abuse.

Merryn believes she wouldn't have lived in silence after being raped at 6 years old by a neighbor had some sort of formal education been in place.

And when a cousin repeatedly molested her five years later, Merryn believes she would have come forward sooner had teachers instilled the need to tell.

Merryn, who has a master's degree in social work, said that the first time many students get any sexual assault education is in high school, too late for many. "I want to prevent this from ever happening, not deal with the aftermath," she said.

Merryn is pushing for state legislation aiming to do just that.

Erin's Law calls for age-appropriate curriculum on sexual abuse for prekindergarten through fifth grade. Its purpose is to prevent children from falling prey to sexual abuse or remaining silent if they do.

State Sen. Tim Bivins, a Dixon Republican and former Lee County sheriff, is sponsoring Erin's Law. He filed the bill on Thursday and hopes it will come up for a vote before the spring session adjourns May 7.

It goes far deeper than current school code, which only says sexual violence must be mentioned as part of bullying prevention, and a health education act requiring sexual assault information be taught in high schools.

The legislation creates a nine-person task force charged with researching child sexual abuse throughout Illinois, receiving testimony and establishing strategies that would ultimately become state policy.

"We can't end this evil epidemic, so we need to give innocent children the tools and knowledge to protect themselves," Merryn said. "Otherwise they'll listen to the perpetrator who tells them to be quiet because it's the only message they're getting."

One in four girls and one in six boys will be abused by their 18th birthday, according to a Centers for Disease Control study. And more than 90 percent of victims know their abusers, according to Children's Advocacy Centers, a nonprofit network of 700 facilities providing services to fight child abuse.

Dixon Police Chief Dan Langloss, who heard Merryn speak and put her in contact with Bivins, said of the 150 abuse victims ages 3 to 13 he's interviewed, not one of their perpetrators was a stranger.

Langloss also said that most parents don't report abuse to police when a child confides in them. He believes children must learn to tell their teachers, counselors and other authority figures who are mandated reporters.

Merryn's been on a crusade to erase the stigma put on victims of sexual abuse for the past eight years and won't be deterred.

As a senior at Schaumburg High School, she published "Stolen Innocence," a collection of diary entries from ages 11 to 19 chronicling her abuse and healing process.

Merryn tours the country telling her story at conferences, colleges, fundraisers and on talk shows. She also works closely with Children's Advocacy Centers, the place she finally broke her silence at age 13 after discovering her cousin was also molesting her little sister.

Merryn struggled for about five years after coming forward, suffering flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and thoughts of suicide. She self-injured and had an eating disorder and depression.

Then she confronted her cousin and corresponded with him through letters. He apologized and she eventually let go of her anger. Forgiveness is a main focus of her second book, "Living for Today," released in November.

Merryn is her middle name, and she uses it in the public eye in order to protect the identity of her relatives.

Bivins is confident both parents and legislators will get behind Erin's Law, especially since it is calling for research before implementation. He wants to get the task force assembled before summer.

Professors and staff at Harper College, including Linda Campbell, an associate professor of psychology who invited Merryn to speak to 200 of her students, have volunteered to research and create curriculum.

Bivins also suggested Merryn teach the curriculum on a DVD that can be mass-produced in order to keep costs minimal.

If all goes according to plan, the task force will submit its final report to the governor and General Assembly on April 30, 2011. That's the 13th anniversary of when Merryn entered the Children's Advocacy Center in Hoffman Estates with her little sister and parents, and the day she found her voice.

"This law is necessary and overdue," Chief Langloss said. "We need to wake people up that child sexual abuse is an immediate problem and has long-lasting and devastating effects."

Erin Merryn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, speaks to psychology students last week at Harper College in Palatine. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer