HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill.— Erin Merryn is convinced she would have spoken out much earlier if she had been taught at a young age about the threat of sexual abuse. Instead, she endured abuse at the hands of a neighbor and older cousin for years before seeking help.
Now 27, the Illinois native is campaigning nationwide for states to pass laws requiring all public schools to make children aware of the dangers from as early as pre-school. She achieved an important victory Thursday, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed Erin's Law in her home state.
"Had I been educated as a child, I would have spoken up and told the very first time," Merryn said at a bill signing ceremony at a child advocacy center in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. It was there that she sought help as a 13-year-old, seven years after the abuse started.
Merryn, who has written two books about her ordeal, quit her job in social work three years ago to campaign full time.
She has encountered resistance from some lawmakers, including some in Illinois, who wonder where the funding will come from, whether overworked educators can take on another mandatory program and whether the subject matter can be taught in a way that's appropriate for young children.
She believes some of the pushback is due to a stigma against reporting the sexual abuse of children and a general lack of understanding about the scope of the problem.
"We're talking about a silent epidemic," Merryn said before the ceremony. "We live in a world where we want to look the other way and pretend this is not going on."
Through her campaigning, four other states have passed versions of Erin's Law — Indiana, Maine, Michigan and Missouri.
Quinn invited Merryn to join him at a meeting of the National Governors Association at the end of February to talk about the issue. He said Erin's Law will "save and protect the lives of countless children."
The Illinois law goes into effect immediately and schools will have to implement it starting next school year.
Schools can draw on many age-appropriate programs that have already been created by experts, including some that use role playing to teach children to recognize inappropriate behavior. Merryn said many programs will visit schools for free, and that schools only need to devote an hour or two to the program each year.
The law also requires educators to take part in training classes that cover sexual abuse and how to recognize warning signs.
Merryn said children, even from a young age, should be told they're not to blame and be encouraged to come forward and tell their parents or teachers if they are experiencing abuse.
In her case, both of her attackers threatened her and told her no one would believe her if she spoke out.
"So that's the only message I was getting as a child," Merryn said.