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ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – In his monthly press briefing Tuesday, Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon drove home the point that the COVID-19 stay-at-home order puts children at risk of physical and sexual abuse.
Using a webconference platform, McMahon introduced Erin Merryn, for whom Erin’s Law was named, which is a mandate for public schools to teach students about prevention-oriented sexual abuse and body safety programs.
“We know from – not just years, but decades of experience – that the majority of criminal abuse is someone they know,” McMahon said. “Oftentimes, that abuse, physical and sexual, occurs inside a home. The current shelter-in-place order, while incredibly necessary and designed to benefit all of us in our public health, isolates children who may be victims of physical and sexual abuse.That concerns all of us across the county.”
Now that children are learning remotely and their teachers do not see them physically each day, it creates an environment where it is difficult to investigate allegations of abuse, McMahon said.
Educators make the majority of abuse calls to the Department of Children and Family Services, McMahon said.
“We are asking parents, friends, family members to be really vigilant in ensuring all the children in Kane County remain safe,” McMahon said. “And if they see something that is alarming – whether it is signs of bruising or other evidence of physical abuse – or things that raise suspicion about sexual abuse, that they share that information with DCFS and/or law enforcement and allow professionals to come in and investigate.”
McMahon said people have immunity for good faith reports made to the DCFS hot line.
Debra Bree, executive director of the Kane County Child Advocacy Center, said they are still getting reports of child abuse, though it is reduced because of the stay-at-home order.
Illinois was the first of 37 states to pass Erin’s Law in 2010, which mandates public schools to teach age-appropriate techniques to recognize sexual abuse and inappropriate touching and that children should tell a trusted adult if they have been abused, McMahon said.
“Erin’s Law and her advocacy across our country has led to numerous disclosures, investigations and successful prosecutions, putting a stop to abuse and holding people accountable for these horrific crimes,” McMahon said.
Merryn said when she goes to states to advocate for their lawmakers to pass Erin’s Law, she shows them news reports of disclosures and convictions, all as a result of personal body safety education in school.
“I now have this ... binder of news articles I bring to the table when I travel to these different states,” Merryn said. “‘This Maryland teacher – sentenced to 48 years. Mom’s boyfriend was sentenced to 40 years.’ I just start pulling out these articles to show them that this is evidence in other states that this is working.”
Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin have yet to pass Erin’s Law, she said.
Now with children being home during the coronavirus pandemic, Merryn said, “For many kids, school is the only safe place.”
Some school districts teach Erin’s Law at the beginning of the school year; some had not gotten to it yet before the stay-at-home order, she said
Merryn urged that e-learning incorporate Erin’s Law information.
McMahon said not physically being in a school building does not diminish the importance of getting the Erin’s Law lessons out to students and parents.
“I’m asking that they continue to do that and they make that part of the remote curriculum as we go through the last quarter of the school year,” McMahon said.
Merryn also recommended that families who are not used to being cooped up together take steps to reduce their stress, such as taking breaks.
“People who would not normally snap on their kids might get physical,” Merryn said. “Take a walk. Take a break. Don’t snap on them and say or do something you will regret later.”
Merryn also recommended paying attention to children in your neighborhood, your children’s friends, for signs that something is wrong.
“If you see black and blue marks, pick up the phone,” Merryn said.
Merryn also cautioned that children should not be left unattended online.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for these predators to start communicating with children,” Merryn said.
Woman behind Erin's law was abused
Erin Merryn, for whom Erin’s Law was named, said she was first abused at age six by the uncle of her best friend, who was a neighbor and lived with them.
“This man had told me to keep it a secret,” Merryn said. “So that is exactly what I did and the abuse, like with most perpetrators, goes on and on and on until a child speaks up or someone finds out about it.."
The abuse went on until she was 8 1/2 when the family moved.
"So I never saw this guy again, moved to a new neighborhood, made new friends," Merryn said. "And little did I realize moving was getting me that much closer to the next perpetrator. This time, an older cousin who was a teenager at the time that lived literally down the street.”
The cousin continued to tell her that it was their secret, no one would believe her and if she told, she would destroy the family, Merryn said.
His abuse of her continued for over two years. At age 13, she finally told when her little sister disclosed that he was also abusing her.
“By her coming forward, I knew they would believe us now,” Merrryn said. “We broke our silence and a month later, my sister and I were brought to a children’s advocacy center where a whole investigation began. And my cousin was arrested. He confessed. And that is how I got involved with the work that children’s advocacy centers do.”
Merryn said the advocacy center believed her, but her father’s entire extended family – except for one – sided with the perpetrator.
They sided with the perpetrator even after he confessed and claimed that she and her sister were making it up, Merryn said.
“That is not uncommon. Often when it comes to abuse within a family, the perpetrator is often protected. People don’t want to believe that dad, step dad, grandpa, uncle could do such a thing,” Merryn said.
"they often say kids are making this up. The reality is, kids rarely make up something like this,” Merryn said. “And when they do, that is uncovered when there is an interview being done and there is not consistency in their story.”
More information is available by visiting www.erinmerryn.net.
• Prevent Child Abuse Illinois - www.preventchildabuseillinois.org
• National Children's Advocacy Center - www.nationalcac.org
• Kane County State's Attorney - saopublic.co.kane.il.us
• Illinois Department of Children and Family Services - www2.illinois.gov