‘Erin’s Law,’ bill seeking sexual abuse prevention, gets last-minute boost from namesake

The namesake of a bill to prevent childhood sexual abuse testified on its behalf Tuesday in the Ohio General Assembly’s last hearing before taking a several-month summer break.

Erin Merryn addressed the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee in support of Amended House Bill 105, “Erin’s Law,” which has been adopted in 37 states but repeatedly stalled in Ohio.

In the latest attempt, state Reps. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, and Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, introduced the bill in February 2021. It passed the House 86-8 in June 2021, then had Senate committee hearings in September and October – but not again until Tuesday.

Merryn, now a spokesperson for the National Children’s Alliance, was sexually abused for six years as a child. As an adult, she advocates for schools to teach children personal body safety. She drove from the Chicago area for what she said was her third time in seven years supporting the bill in Ohio.

“One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18,” said Merryn, who held her infant son, Jack, as she addressed senators.

Children are regularly taught about “stranger danger,” but more than 90% of the time sexual abuse comes from someone the child knows and trusts, she said. Often the abusers are known as “upstanding citizens” — “firemen, teachers, the youth pastor,” Merryn said.

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As little as one hour per year of instruction on “safe and unsafe touch, safe and unsafe secrets,” and how to report abuse can be effective, she said.

“My parents, the school, never taught me you don’t keep these secrets,” Merryn said.

Merryn said she did not object to parents having the option to decline the training.

“Often these kids that are being abused will tell their best friend, but not an adult,” she said. So even if the victim does not learn to speak up, a friend who has had the training might report it, Merryn said.

The bill would require schools each year to provide age-appropriate instruction in child sexual abuse prevention for grades K-6, and age-appropriate instruction in sexual violence prevention education for grades 7-12. Parents or guardians would be notified of the scheduled lesson and allowed on request to inspect the instructional material.

The state Department of Education would offer links on its website to help schools develop their curricula.

Schools would have to include training on recognizing and reporting child sexual abuse into their required in-service training for teachers and other professionals. Instruction in preventing abuse would have to include information on counseling and resources for children who are sexually abused.

Lipps said a major driver of his sponsorship was a Springboro abuse case. Former Clearcreek Elementary School gym teacher John Austin Hopkins was convicted in 2020 on 34 counts of gross sexual imposition involving 27 first-grade girls during the 2018-19 school year. He was accused of acting inappropriately with 88 students. Hopkins was sentenced to eight years in prison.

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State Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, who has often backed legislation against human trafficking, noted that many trafficking victims had previously been sexually abused and were targeted by traffickers.

“I’ve been trying to aim at getting to the root of the problem,” she said.

Fedor said Ohio is the only state that lacks standards for health instruction, due to opposition to sex education. She asked if Merryn had seen resistance to sex abuse prevention efforts in other states for that reason.

“There has been a little bit of confusion in some states that I clear up quickly. This is not sex education,” Merryn said. Teaching children to recognize and report abuse is a “completely separate issue,” she said.

The bill has attracted no open opposition, but Lipps has said right-wing groups including the Center for Christian Virtue have worked behind the scenes to bury it.

“I’m concerned about removing the innocence of our young children,” state Sen. Sandra O’Brien, R-Ashtabula, said in Tuesday’s hearing. She asked who would develop the curriculum for sexual abuse prevention.

“Will it be Planned Parenthood or any of their subsidiaries?” O’Brien asked.

Merryn said she wouldn’t support instruction by Planned Parenthood, and opposed such an effort in New York. Many states have worked directly with children’s advocacy centers to develop the lessons, which are typically taught by social workers or psychologists who already work within the school, she said.

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