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Legislators aim to prevent child abuse

November 11, 2012

JACKSON — “Erin’s Law” is described as a tool to keep sexual predators away from children. Four states — Maine, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri — have enacted it and a dozen more may consider it in 2013.

Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, and Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, want Mississippi to be among them. They’re drafting a bill for 2013 with help from the Children’s Justice Center.

“The goal,” Miles said, “is to make Mississippi a safe place for our children.”

The law’s namesake is Erin Merryn, a 27-year-old woman from Schaumburg, Ill., who was sexually abused as a child and now campaigns for increased education to protect children from sexual predators.

The law would require schools to create lessons to help children understand and talk about sexual abuse.
Supporters say teachers and administrators may be best positioned to identify children who are abused at home. The proposed law would also have teachers work with groups that help victims of sexual abuse.

Miles says material presented small children — kindergarten to fifth grade — would be age-appropriate and comply with research on child abuse.

Miles says he and Collins support a program that educates children “to know when they are being messed with and that they can go to an authority figure and not be scared to report it.”

“It’s also a deterrent to sexual predators who will now know that they will be reported to authorities,” Miles said.

He said the law also should help child advocacy centers and social workers.

Mississippi courts recognize the “tender years exception” that applies to both hearsay rules and Sixth Amendment confrontation issues. The exception allows a parent or licensed professional to tell juries what abused children have told them, including descriptions of any sexual contact performed with or on the child by another person.

The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence says 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and the Crimes Against Children Research Center shows 93 percent of those cases are abuse from someone they know and trust.

Merryn speaks to audiences around the country — as she did in Tupelo recently — about being sexually abused as a child by an authority figure and a family member and not knowing how to tell anyone because of shame and fear of being in trouble. She has used her experiences and books about them as a platform for change.

The issue of child abuse made headlines with the scandal at Penn State and the failure of the Boy Scouts of America to report sexual abuse of children.

In Mississippi, a former Boy Scouts of America volunteer was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for having sex with boys. This past week, a federal grand jury in Mississippi indicted two men on charges of sexually assaulting a 3- or 4-year-old girl and recording it.

Rebecca Mansell with the Children’s Justice Center says the Penn State scandal brought to focus the vulnerability of young children. She said it showed predators “usually target children from a single family, offering them something they normally couldn’t receive.”

“I see Erin’s Law as a way to reach our younger children ... that our youngest children should know what the appropriate boundaries are with adults,” Mansell said.

Mansell said schools are the proper forum for the program because “our teachers see more of our children than many of us do and teachers will report something quicker than anyone else.”

Mansell said the Children’s Justice Center intends to purchase the educational program, change it for Mississippi and make it available free online.

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