Law will allow younger children to learn about sexual abuse awareness, prevention

Sarah Jansen, family support specialist, left, laughs as Advocacy Network for Children’s Terry Gibson tries without much success to hoola-hoop while in costume as a new mascot named “Happy Bear” at the Advocacy Network for Children’s main office in Quincy
Posted: Feb. 4, 2013 9:41 am Updated: Feb. 18, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Erin Merryn learned plenty during her formative years in school growing up in suburban Chicago.

She took part in tornado drills, fire drills, bus drills. She learned about stranger danger and why things like alcohol and tobacco are bad for you.

One thing that Merryn wished she was taught at a young age was how to deal with sexual abuse. She was molested by a neighbor from the ages of 6 to 8 1/2. From the ages of 11 to 13, an older cousin took advantage of her.

Merryn has made it her life's mission to make sure other kids don't have to grow up the way she did. She is the driving force behind "Erin's Law," which was signed into law last month by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. The law mandates that all schools in the state teach age-appropriate sexual assault and abuse awareness and prevention classes. Illinois is just the fifth state to pass such a law, joining Indiana, Maine, Michigan and Missouri.

"It's been needed for a long time," said Clairice Hetzler, executive director of the Quincy-based Advocacy Network for Children. "Nobody wants to talk about this particular subject. We want to believe that it doesn't happen in our neighborhood or our family. We want to believe that it only happens to strangers in California. In Quincy alone, we've had more cases since we opened in 1999 than there are students at the junior high school."

According to a 2006 study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. There are an estimated 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in America, and three million of those victims are still children.

Hetzler wants to be able to get out the message to children about what is abuse and how they can be safe.

"This gives us the opportunity to do some prevention work that we've never really done before," said Hetzler.

Hetzler's group will start its efforts at the youngest level in the Quincy Public Schools. In April, it will give a presentation to 4-year-olds at the Early Childhood and Family Center. The agency chose "P.S. It's My Body" as its prevention program for the youngest children. Hetzler said the group will use a mascot, Happy Bear, to help get the message across to kids in preschool through first grade. The agency, which covers a nine-county area in West-Central Illinois, will use a different program for older children. Hetzler said they will educate students through the sixth grade. Right now, they have only made plans to educate preschool children and will develop a program for older children in the coming months.

"We'll have a follow-up component for teachers and training for parents," Hetzler said. "We hope to get parents involved. We hope we can make people start thinking about this more and keep it in front of people."

Hetzler and her staff have already given their presentation to school officials at the ECFC.

"I think they're really approaching it in a positive way," said Julie Schuckman, ECFC director. "They want to make it child friendly but also informative. They want to be real honest with the kids about what is good touching, what is a bad touch and when to ask for help. ... I think it important to teach our children to be safe and that it's OK to say it's not safe or something is happening to them."

Illinois law says that sexual assault education needs to be taught at all secondary schools. This is done primarily through health classes. Hetzler likes the fact that young children now will be able to hear the message.

"The majority of children we see are not in high school," she said. "They are much younger. We want to prevent it early on or provide a way for kids to tell and know that they can tell someone about what is going on."

Advocacy Network for Children covers Adams, Brown, Cass, Hancock, McDonough, Morgan, Pike, Schuyler and Scott counties. Hetzler said the organization will be taking its presentation to schools throughout that area. The purchase of the Happy Bear mascot and the start-up materials was made possible thanks to an anonymous donation, Hetzler said.