Erin Merryn (second from right) used her own experiences to begin a crusade to end child sexual abuse in the United States. Also pictured from left to right are Chelsea Clinton, Julianna Margulies and Katie Couric.
Photo by Courtesy Erin Merryn
From the time she was 6 years old, Erin Merryn was sexually abused. For two-and-half years, a neighbor in his late 20s molested her, she said. Then, when Merryn was 11, her cousin began to abuse her, a situation that, again, lasted for two years.
"They were both very violent men," she told the Jackson Free Press.
Rather than destroying her, Merryn's experiences galvanized her to become a defender of children. One out of four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday, she said, numbers backed by numerous organizations, including the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Now 27, Merryn was in high school when she faced her cousin about his behavior.
"After confronting him and corresponding for seven months, the final letter ... was him apologizing and asking for forgiveness," she said. "I had this 'aha' moment of 'I have to let go of this bitterness, anger and rage and do something positive with this--put a face and voice on this silent epidemic that no one wants to talk about."
She self-published her diary, "Stolen Innocence," in 2004 when she was a high-school senior. Six months later, publisher HCI picked up the book. She followed up with "Living for Today" (HCI, $12.95) after completing her master's degree in 2009.
"In that one, I talk a lot about healing and the decision to go after Erin's law," she said. That decision moved her from writing about her abuse--difficult enough for most--to become a public defender of abused children, giving them a voice from the first moment sexual abuse happens.
In 2010, Merryn began working full time to put the issue of child sexual abuse in front of state legislatures. The law--called Erin's Law--makes teaching children to recognize and report sexual abuse part of the school curriculum.
Yesterday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed an Erin's Law bill after a task force completed an exhaustive 10-month investigation of the issue, which included writing age-appropriate curricula for the state's schools. Merryn said she testified four times for the task force. Illinois is the fifth state to pass Erin's Law since she took up the cause.
"The new bill brings a mandate," Merryn said, "mandating that all (Illinois) schools--pre-school through 12th grade--must begin next fall teaching sexual-abuse prevention education in the schools."
The goal of the law is to empower children to speak up and includes a component to encourage parental involvement. "Teach kids not to keep silent," Merryn said. "Teach kids what's a safe touch, what's an unsafe touch."
When she was a child, she said, she knew to say no to drugs, but didn't know how to do the same with her abusers. Merryn hopes that this law will raise children's awareness of sexual abuse to the level of what kids already know about drugs.
In Mississippi, Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, has sponsored Erin's Law in the current session. HB 200 is one of 10 such bills being introduced in state legislatures across the country so far this year. "My goal is that we get it passed in all 50 (states)." Merryn said.
Miles said he has bi-partisan support in both houses in the state Legislature and from the public. The bill targets kids from kindergarten through fifth grade and would be implemented in the 2015-2016 school year. The response to the bill has surprised him, he said. People have been thanking him and relating their own stories of abuse.
"It's just something that's pushed under the rug a lot in Mississippi," he said. "... We want to make Mississippi the safest state for all children."
Merryn will be at the state capitol to speak about the bill on Monday, Jan. 28, at 3 p.m. in room 204. For more information, visit www.erinmerryn.net.