Implementing Erin’s Law
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Protecting children from sexual abuse is an unfortunate but agreed-upon edict. However, too often that protection takes the form of shielding—shielding youth from information about their bodies, safety, and what exactly sexual abuse is. That lack of education can be, and often is, dangerous.
“When I was a child, I was taught tornado, bus, and fire drills; stranger danger; and the eight ways to say ‘no’ to drugs through D.A.R.E.,” says Erin Merryn, founder of Erin’s Law, who was a victim of sexual abuse starting at the age of 6. “But where were the eight ways of how to get away and tell? The only thing I was taught on personal body safety was from my abusers and that was to keep it [the abuse] a secret.
“I was safer talking to the man at the bus stop walking by with his dog that I didn’t know than with the people in my life who abused me: a neighbor and a family member,” she says.
After revealing the abuse, Merryn sought healing, in part through advocacy. She wrote to legislators in her home state of Illinois and worked to get a law passed that would require children be taught about sexual abuse. It came to be known as Erin’s Law.
“I want to give kids the voice I never had,” she explains, “and educate them on how to speak up and tell if they are being abused.”
Since the law was passed in Illinois in 2011, more than one-half of the states in the country have enacted it or similar legislation (with variations from state to state). Many of the remaining states have legislation awaiting a vote. “[And] in December 2015, President Obama signed the federal version of Erin’s Law, requiring federal funding for the bill across America, which was a huge success,” Merryn notes. “The money will be made available to schools in the 2018–2019 school year.”
With this type of progress being made legislatively, Social Work Today looks into how the enacted state laws are being or will be implemented.
Many of the states that enacted Erin’s Law are still in the process of rolling out implementation, as they assess what the law requires and meeting these requirements.
“The Alaska Safe Children’s Act was signed into law in September 2015,” says Patricia Owen, BA, MCHES, health education specialist at the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. “The Alaska Safe Children’s Act actually combines two laws: Erin’s Law and Bree’s Law.” Bree’s Law, Owen explains, focuses on dating violence and abuse as well as prevention education.
“The Alaska state legislature built in time for preparation by scheduling the effective date for two years [after enactment]. The law will go into effect this summer: June 30, 2017,” Owen says.
Nevada similarly created a timeline after enacting the law in 2015. The first step in Nevada was for the Department of Education to adopt Child Safety Standards. “We used a committee of child abuse prevention experts to help draft the first set of standards,” says Victoria Blakeney, education program professional at the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment. “They researched other state standards and worked with curriculum experts to put forth the first draft.
“We present our draft of standards to the Academic Standards Council in June, and then to legislators after that,” she says. “Once the standards are adopted, we will present them to the districts, although members in the districts are being made aware of the process or contributing to it all along.”
In Alaska, a task force was convened to identify models and training materials. Owen was staff to the task force when it met from October 2015 to June 2016. In June, recommendations were presented. Since then and in the lead-up to this coming June, the focus has been on informing school districts. “During this year,” Owen says, “we have been doing presentations at conferences and webinars for school districts to review the requirements and present the recommendations of the task force.
“We were lucky to receive some funding from our legislature for this year and have been able to provide all districts with some seed money to help with the implementation. We are also compiling a toolkit of resources,” Owen adds.
Once schools are fully informed and prepared in both states, it will be up to the districts to determine the exact details of how to proceed.
“Adopting curricula in Alaska is the responsibility of each school board. The task force has recommended some model curricula; however, districts may choose from the list of recommended curricula, choose something else, or develop their own,” Owen says.
Blakeney seconds that method. “We don’t select curricula; we just adopt standards. Districts are allowed to select curricula of their choosing that teach to those standards. We will, however, provide them with recommendations.”
In the Classroom
To best understand how districts in Alaska, Nevada, and other states might specifically educate their students, one should look to the themes present and emphasized in both recommended curricula and classrooms already implementing Erin’s Law.
Think First & Stay Safe Adult Training and Youth Curriculum was developed by Child Lures Prevention, an organization founded by Kenneth Wooden, a former educator, investigative reporter, and twice-published author. The curriculum is updated annually in an effort “to keep our programming as relevant as possible,” says Rosemary Wooden Webb, a national child safety expert and copresident of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention.
“We incorporate new research findings and best practices, as well as the input from the thousands of teachers, counselors, child advocates, law enforcement, and youth-serving organizations across the country who implement Think First & Stay Safe.”
Two key components of their curriculum are that kids have basic and human rights, and that most people are kind and safe. “Children are taught they have a right to body privacy and body ownership,” Wooden Webb says. “They learn how to set personal boundaries and practice asking others to respect those boundaries. Children also learn it is against the law to abuse a child in any way.”
Jennifer Wooden Mitchell, a national child safety expert and cpresident of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention, adds on the second component, “We want to keep these crimes in perspective. Most kids are not abused. Most adults do not abuse. Most people are safe people who can be depended upon when kids need help.”
Another key aspect of the curriculum is collaboration. “A comprehensive effort definitely increases the efficacy of prevention programming,” Wooden Mitchell notes. “When all community partners are familiar with, and using, common child safety language, it helps to better protect children and helps professionals who are supporting children and families.”
Brooke Benesh, MSW, LSW, school social worker at Genoa Elementary School in Genoa Kingston CUSD #424 in Illinois, agrees, adding that parents are particularly vital in successful education efforts. “It is important that parents are aware of the skills we are teaching, so that they can reinforce the concepts at home. Providing information to parents not only allows concepts to be reinforced at home but also prepares parents with how they talk to their children about preventing sexual abuse.”
Benesh’s school district uses a curriculum called Smart Kids Safe Kids and has been doing so since the 2013–2014 school year. The lessons are taught once per school year by social workers and other student services personnel to each cohort of students, in a manner that further encourages collaboration—among the children. “The material is presented to one to two classrooms at a time, in order to facilitate group discussions and encourage the students to ask questions.”
Thus far, the reception to Erin’s Law has been largely positive and has highlighted the ongoing need for such legislation and curricula. Merryn recalls legislators reacting strongly to her testimony. “[They] break down and cry after I testify saying this law could have saved children”
In the classroom, Benesh and her district have seen more students come forward. “Following the implementation of the program, we have had multiple disclosures from students that were being sexually abused, and we were able to provide those students with the help they needed,” she says. “Due to the information they received through the program, they feel comfortable seeking support. As we continue to implement this curriculum, we are providing our students with the skills needed to protect themselves if facing a dangerous situation.”
And it is hoped that those skills will continue to spread throughout the country, offering not just knowledge but also solace to victims of sexual abuse. “Survivors always tell us two things,” Wooden Mitchell says. “One, ‘I thought I was alone, that I was the only one that this was happening to,’ and two, ‘I didn’t know that what was happening to me was a crime, that I didn’t have to put up with it.’”
With the implementation of Erin’s Law, they will have the opportunity to know.
For more information on the progress of Erin’s Law, visit http://erinslaw.org.
— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer, social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs, and winner of a 2017 NASW Media Award for Best Article in a Trade Publication. Read the article at: http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/011716p20.shtml