Erin's Law moving closer to reality
She spoke for just three minutes, but Erin Merryn's powerful testimony Tuesday to the Illinois House education committee about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of two entrusted caretakers quieted chatter and induced tears.
So moved by her chilling words and charge to teach children "how to get away and how to tell today," 30 legislators requested they be added as co-sponsors to Erin's Law, which passed 110-0 the following day.
"Because no one was giving me the messages on how to speak up about sexual abuse, on what safe touch is, on how to put a face and voice on this, I stayed silent and listened to my perpetrators," the 25-year-old Schaumburg woman testified.
With Wednesday's vote, Erin's Law, which aims to prevent children from falling prey to sexual abuse or remaining silent if they do, is one step closer to landing on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.
The Senate unanimously approved the bill in May but now has to concur on amended language before it's ready for Quinn's signature. A spokeswoman said it's premature for the governor to comment since he'd want to review the final version of the law.
The legislation creates the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, which will study ways to reduce child sexual abuse in Illinois. It will submit a final report with its recommendations by Jan. 1, 2012.
It also adds provisions allowing school boards to implement age-appropriate curriculum for students prekindergarten through fifth grade, training for school personnel, educational information for parents and emotional and educational support for abused children.
Bill sponsors said it would be hard to muster support if mandates were included, so schools aren't required to do anything at this point. But the task force, to be run by the Department of Children and Family Services and composed of Merryn and representatives of education, social work and law enforcement, intends to come up with strong and clear curriculum for schools to adopt.
"It's like Erin said: Kids had tornado training and fire drills but they never learned about safe touch and unsafe touch," said state Rep. Suzie Bassi, a Palatine Republican.
Also a victim of sexual abuse, Bassi became emotional hearing Merryn speak.
"This gives little ones tools to be able to protect themselves or tell another adult," she said.
Merryn was sexually abused and raped from ages 6 to 8 by a best friend's uncle, and again molested from ages 11 to 13 by a cousin. Merryn is her middle name, and she uses it in the public eye to protect the identity of her relatives.
She's written two books and speaks at Children's Advocacy Centers and other organizations across the nation. Last month, Merryn told her story on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," moving the talk show queen to tears.
A member of Oprah's staff has put her in touch with the well-known organization Protect with the idea Erin's Law could go national.
Her testimony before the state panel almost didn't happen. Discussion on another bill took up the session's allotted hour and the committee recessed.
It took state Rep. Jerry Mitchell, a bill sponsor and Rock Falls Republican, to run up to the microphone and implore members to listen to Merryn, who couldn't return the next day.
"I threw a temper tantrum, which I don't often do," said Mitchell, who can recall the entire committee requesting to be added as sponsors only two times in the 16 years he's been in office. "It's a topic that we've shied away from for too long."