Erin’s Law Adopted, Connecticut to Implement Sexual Abuse Awareness Curriculum

On Wednesday, June 11, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed Erin’s Law legislation that requires an age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The law in Conecticut will take effect July 1, and will begin a year-long window for the State Department of Education to develop a curriculum for use in all schools throughout the state.

Erin’s Law is the work of advocate and author Erin Merryn, a victim of sexual abuse beginning at age six and lasting until she was 13. Merryn has become the public face of the often silent childhood sexual abuse epidemic.

In January 2010, she began the process of advocating for enactment of a law requiring sexual abuse education and awareness in her home state of Illinois. The measure was signed into law by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn in January 2013. Since then, Merryn has been on a crusade to see Erin’s Law adopted in all 50 states across the country.

Currently 15 states, including Connecticut, have passed Erin’s Law and it is being considered in another 22 states. (Infographic below from Merryn's website.)@CTMagKate I am thrilled CT did right by kids in giving them a voice. I was confident after my visit in March to the capital it would pass.

(Merryn visited the state in March to lobby for her bill and be honored by the group Jane Doe No More. See our story here.)

Governor Malloy’s press secretary, Samaia M. Hernandez, relayed this message following the governor signing the bill on Wednesday, “As a parent and someone whose wife spent years as an advocate for survivors and victims of sexual and domestic violence, this is an issue that is very dear to Governor Malloy. The Governor was happy to join other states in supporting this bill, which aims to raise the awareness of sexual assault and abuse with an education prevention program for teachers with age-appropriate material for students.”

In Connecticut, Erin’s Law was championed by state Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague). She calls the passage of the law, “a victory for children.”

“I think this is an extremely important piece of legislation because it’s not about sexual education, it’s about sexual abuse prevention,” she says. “It teaches children about safe secrets and not safe secrets, about safe touch and not safe touch… . By having this legislation, children know there are things they can say no to… . There are certain things that should never be kept [secret] by people.”

Erin’s Law was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and the Senate during the 2014 legislative session, demonstrating recognition of the importance of this bill.

Osten says she was first made aware of Erin’s Law last year when the bill just nearly missed the midnight deadline for the 2013 legislative session.

Through 21 years of working in the correctional justice system, Osten has had a long history of working with sexual abuse victims. She says she has, “seen the long term impacts of sexual abuse.” As a citizen, she worked on Megan’s Law, legislation requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders. Some variation of Megan’s Law was adopted by every state and the District of Columbia by 1996. Osten sees Erin’s Law as, “another piece of the puzzle.”

The adoption of Erin’s Law marks a crucial change in the way Connecticut thinks about and handles sexual assault prevention, a step those in the field have been working toward for years.

Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc. (CONNSACS), a statewide coalition of individual sexual assault crisis programs aimed at ending sexual violence through victim assistance, community education and public policy advocacy, endorses the state’s recent passage of Erin’s Law—particularly for the strength this bill will give to work the organization and its subsidiaries are already doing to educate the public.

“The responsibility of preventing sexual abuse should never fall to children and the law recognizes that,” says CONNSACS Director of Public Policy & Communication Jillian Gilchrest. “There needs to be education for parents and teachers as well.”

“That work, providing age-appropriate sexual abuse education, that’s part of our mission and always has been,” says Barbara Spiegel, executive director of the Susan B. Anthony Project in Torrington, one of CONNSACS’ programs. “[The law] gives strength and credibility [to what we’re doing.]”

“It’s tough. If we’re with kids for a couple hours and the school climate and culture is not reinforcing the message, it’s just one little hour of a long life,” Spiegel says. “We just have to keep going at it.”

The Susan B. Anthony Project has been providing age-appropriate lessons to children through the Torrington School District, surrounding districts and community programs for more than 30 years.

“The beauty of this being a law is if there’s a school saying we don’t want to do that, or we want to start at 7th grade, [they have to],” says Spiegel.

There will be an option for parents to opt their children out of the curriculum if they wish, but Osten says she doesn’t imagine that will happen that often. Once it is “appropriately explained that this is not sexual education,” she thinks most parents will see the benefit.

One in five girls and one in 14 boys in Connecticut are sexually abused, according to the most recent data from 2000, provided by Gilchrest.

She sees Erin’s Law as one piece in a larger conversation about changing the culture. Other components of that shift include the conversations that are had at the policy level, engaging the media and changing the way we talk about these issues.

“We’re talking about a big culture change,” says Spiegel. “We compare ourselves to [Mother’s Against Drunk Driving] or secondhand smoke. It’s the messaging.”

 “This is setting us on a great trajectory,” Gilchrest says of Erin’s Law.

Once the law is enacted on July 1 the State Board of Education will have a year, until July 1, 2015 to develop a curriculum. They will then have until October 2015 to provide the program to all boards of education across the state.

“To provide people, children in particular, the ability to report [sexual abuse] and give them some sort of protection, that has always been my goal,” says Osten.

For more information on Erin's Law, visit Erin Merryn's website.

For more information on CONNSACS, click here, or for more information on the Susan B. Anthony Project, click here.

Check back for more stories on Erin's Law. 

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