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Alaska Legislature can have an impact on abuse now if it passes Erin's Law

Geran Tarr,Erin Merryn
OPINION: The Legislature is close to making real progress in giving our Alaska kids the tools they need to stand up to sexual abuse. But, we need to follow through and pass this priority legislation known as Erin’s law. Aaron Jansen illustration

Nothing like putting kids in a headline to grab your attention. But lately, these headlines aren’t what we’d like to see. Just since May, we’ve seen stories on child sex abuse from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Barrow, Ketchikan, Kobuk, Big Lake, Petersburg, Juneau, and Nikiski to name a few. The Office of Children’s Services received 78 allegations of child sexual abuse in the month of May alone. And this is just the abuse that’s been reported.

Fortunately, the Legislature is close to making real progress in giving our kids tools they need to stand up to this abuse. But, we need to follow through and pass this priority legislation known as Erin’s Law. Erin’s Law would require school districts to present students with age-appropriate curriculum about personal body safety. It would also give teachers, staff, and administrators the tools they need to respond properly to allegations of child sexual abuse.

The need is real and the numbers can be overwhelming. One in four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn eighteen. Evidence tells us that 90 percent of these victims will be abused by someone they know and trust -- a family friend, coach, camp counselor, babysitter -- and we know that most perpetrators abuse dozens, even hundreds of victims before they are caught. In Alaska, there were more than 2,000 allegations of child sexual abuse in 2013.

Tragically, in most cases, the only person talking to victims about the abuse is the perpetrator, who tells this child that they must keep the abuse a secret, they will get in trouble for telling someone, or that someone they love might be hurt. The best way to end this ongoing silent epidemic and empower children to speak up is to bring the conversation out into the open and teach children that it is OK, in fact encouraged, to speak up if they, or someone they know, is being abused.

We teach kids what to do if there is a fire, an earthquake, or another emergency. But, we must face the reality that more of these students will be harmed by sexual abuse than by these other threats. Teaching kids about personal body safety is essential to keeping them safe.

So far, eighteen states have enacted a version of Erin’s Law. With Erin’s help, House Bill 233, a version of this bill for Alaska, was introduced last session. Another version of the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but failed to pass the House by the end of the session. The goal is to have all 50 states adopt Erin’s Law.

We shudder to think if even one case of child sexual abuse could have been prevented if we had acted more quickly. The Legislature can and must take action next January and pass Erin's Law, but why wait to do something that can have a positive impact for thousands of students statewide?

School districts can begin working to implement a child sexual abuse prevention curriculum now. We applaud the efforts of the Fairbanks School District which is considering adoption of an "Erin's Policy" for their school district at their regular meeting on August 5. We call on school districts statewide to consider taking action now.

Let’s teach our kids what they need to stay safe. Let’s look forward to some headlines about kids we'd be proud to read.

Rep. Geran Tarr represents District 17 in the Alaska House of Representatives. Erin Merryn is an advocate, author of three books, new Mom to Abigail, and in June was featured in People magazine as one of "15 Women Changing the World."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.