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Survivor of childhood sexual assault continues quest to pass Erin's Law in New York State

Erin Merryn
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Erin Merryn

On Monday in Albany, activists will call on the state legislature to pass Erin's Law, a measure that would require schools to teach sexual abuse and assault awareness to students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The measure is named in honor of Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused by a neighbor at age 6 and by a cousin when she was 11. Merryn, who lives in Illinois, says she's been fighting for ten years to get the law passed in New York.

"I'm trying to make an argument here with these legislators," she said. "If you're gonna tell me you don't have time for this in New York schools, well then spend an hour out of the school year teaching kids personal body safety and drop the stranger danger, because they're at far more higher risk of being abused by someone they know than being abducted off the streets by a stranger."

The proposed law would also mandate instruction for parents, guardians and school personel on how to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and how to respond.

Merryn says it's crucial to start educating children about personal body safety at a very early age because that's when they're most vulnerable.

"I could give you an example in Illinois," she said. "This little girl was being abused by mom's boyfriend starting at the age of 3. She learned Erin's law at the age of 9 and immediately after being taught it, went and told her teacher what mom's boyfriend has been doing for years."

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Merryn said hearing from law enforcement, teachers, and others that perpetrators were arrested and convicted after passage of the law is what keeps her going in her quest to bring the legislation to all 50 states.

Erin's law has already been enacted in 35 states. While it's passed the New York State Senate, it has previously been blocked by the Assembly. Critics have said lawmakers should leave curriculum questions to state education officials.

Some school districts voluntarily bring in educators to teach children about personal body safety.  Rebecca Godwin of Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes provides that training to schools in Ontario, Seneca, and Yates counties.  

"When we have the presentation with kindergarteners - and we do some local pre-schools too - it's 'your body belongs to you'. It's okay to say no to hugs and kisses; there are good secrets and bad secrets," Godwin explained.

Godwin knows of instances where children who have gone through the program disclosed their own abuse stories.

"I think they appreciate telling someone who they don't see every day," she explained, "because if they tell their teacher, then they know their teacher knows and for the rest of the school year, they know their teacher knows what happened."

Merryn plans to meet Monday with leaders in the New York State Senate and Assembly, and she's trying to arrange a meeting with Governor Andrew Cuomo.