Teaching Kids To Fight Being Lifelong VictimsThe Hartford Courant
June 6, 2014
One law can rescue people from the spiral of self-hatred that adds them to the growing pile of prisoners in the country's correctional facilities.
And at the close of the Connecticut General Assembly's most recent session in May, our legislators passed that law, perhaps without fully understanding that it is the most comprehensive anti-crime law that Connecticut's citizens have seen in a long time. It's headed to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's desk and he should sign it into law.
They call this law "Erin's Law" after Erin Merryn, its champion. Merryn is a sexual abuse survivor from Illinois who noted that her elementary school's drills — tornado, bus, stop-drop-and-roll for fires and DARE's eight ways to say no to drugs — never included any training on how to escape a child molester or explained how to discern the difference between good and bad touches, or how to find a trusted adult to report abuse. Merryn could roll her way out of a burning bus during a tornado, but she had no idea how to stop two separate perpetrators from raping her before she turned 13.
Merryn has become a tireless advocate for her namesake law, a law that will implement recognized, age-specific curriculums in Connecticut's schools to teach children how to prevent being sexually victimized through classes including "How to Tell Today," "How to Get Away" and "My Body Belongs to Me."
Passing Erin's Law can chip away at the state's — and the country's — problem of over-incarceration by preventing the single most statistically significant precursor to criminal behavior: childhood sexual abuse.
A Department of Justice study showed 68 percent of adult male prisoners suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect before the age of 12. The data on female offenders are worse: 68 percent to 95 percent were sexually abused, according to various public health surveys. More than any other social problem — poverty, undereducation, mental illness, racism or social isolation — sexual abuse correlates so significantly with crime that it is no extreme stretch to assert that sexual abuse causes crime. It logically follows that to prevent crime and reduce prison populations, we must prevent childhood sexual abuse.
So far, society has convinced itself that the best way to prevent sexually based crimes against children, already at alarming rates — one in four girls and one in six boys experience molestation before age 18 — is to compile "stranger danger" directories, registries of sex offenders that we use to kick people out of our communities so that kids cannot interact with them.
Collectively called "Megan's Laws" after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old from New Jersey who was abducted, molested and killed by her convicted sex offender neighbor, the laws we expect to prevent childhood sexual abuse are residency restrictions and disclosures that amount to little more than human zoning regulations. Under the various forms of Megan's Law, ostracization is our protection. We think absence and distance neutralize any hazard if it's not allowed to live next door to us.
Megan's Laws neglect one central truth to the childhood sexual abuse epidemic that Erin's Law acknowledges: 90 percent of sexual abusers are someone whom the child victim knows. Megan's Laws do not save the initial victims from molestation in the first place as Erin's Law does.
Despite its undeniable logic and likelihood to curb not only childhood sexual abuse but later crimes committed by its victims, only 14 states have passed Erin's Law, with Connecticut poised to join them, if the governor signs the bill. Megan is much more popular than Erin, as 36 states lack any discernible childhood sexual abuse prevention strategy other than using registries to paste labels on offenders who have already hurt someone and to block them from living in certain places.
Because Erin's Law has the potential to stop childhood sexual abuse from happening in the first place, it is more likely to prevent crime — both the original molestation and a victim's later misbehavior if the abuse goes untreated — than Megan's Laws' stranger isolation strategies. Erin Merryn is more than a victims' advocate; she is a crime-fighter of superhero proportions.
Chandra Bozelko of Orange was formerly Inmate No. 330445 at York Correctional Institution and is the author of "Up The River Anthology."