Illinois-native Erin Merryn has made a name for herself by speaking out about the sexual abuse she suffered at an early age.
"I am putting (child sexual abuse) in America's face across this country to realize what an epidemic it is, and we can't allow these predators to have the power and control over our children as they have in the past," she told AL.com. "It is time to silence them and give kids a voice."
For five years, Merryn, 30, has lobbied in states across the country for Erin's Law, which would makes it a requirement to teach students in pre-kindergarten-12th grade personal body safety - knowing the difference between safe touches and unsafe touches and safe secrets and unsafe secrets.
Erin's Law has passed in 21 states and is pending in 22 others.
Merryn is now taking her fight to the state of Alabama.
"Alabama needs this law because just like everywhere else in America children are being sexually abused," she said, adding 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. "I tell teachers these kids are sitting in our classrooms looking at you and you don't even know it."
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, has sponsored Erin's Law in Alabama. The bill has yet to be discussed in the Legislature, and it's unclear what support it will have from lawmakers and the Alabama Department of Education.
Collins has yet to hear from the Department of Education on the potential cost, and if the law is needed to implement awareness programs across the state.
Collins said she is sponsoring the bill because she believes in personal body safety education and has worked in abuse prevention programs since the 1980s.
|State Rep. Terri Collins,|
When Collins heard that one of their projects was teaching children about unsafe touch and how to report their abuse, she agreed to get involved.
The non-profit organization, Parents and Children Together, already provides sexual abuse prevention education to first, third, seventh and 10th grade students in Morgan County. Using puppets, PACT teaches young children to "trust your gut" and tell someone they trust if something is happening to them that makes them feel bad.
While she hasn't seen Erin's Law, Susan Roberts, executive director of PACT, said it would be "phenomenal" if students across the state could receive the education.
After nearly every training session, at least one student will come forward to report their abuse or the abuse or someone they know, she said.
Last year alone, Morgan County received 432 reports of child abuse involving 627 students, Roberts said. She doesn't know how many were substantiated.
Merryn said sexual abuse education can be implemented in schools for little or no cost.
Roberts disagrees saying obtaining the curriculum and having someone to teach it to thousands of students each year isn't cheap.
PACT provided the education to 6,400 Morgan County students last year for free. It cost the organization $60,000.
Merryn said the curriculum is available for $75-125, and the programs can be taught by existing school counselors, psychologists or health teachers.
But no matter the cost, she said the training is essential.
Merryn said she was taught throughout childhood on tornado and fire drills and to stay away from strangers, but she was never told what to do if her best friend's uncle or a relative raped her.
From the ages of 6 to 8, Merryn was molested and raped by her best friend's uncle when she stayed at her house overnight.
Later, her family moved and she escaped that abuse, only to then be molested by an older teenage cousin from the ages of 11-13.
"He threatened me every time that this was our secret, no one would believe me, and I would destroy our family if I told," Merryn said.
"The only message I was getting as a child was from the men hurting me and that came from threats to silence me," she continued. "Had I been taught to speak up and not keep this a secret, on what a safe touch and unsafe touch is, a safe secret and an unsafe secret is, I feel I would have spoken up from the start instead of being abused for years as a child. What made the abuse finally end -- nope it wasn't being educated on how to speak up and tell -- it was my little sister coming to me with the same secret our cousin was molesting her too."
Merryn has written three books on her experiences, the latest being "An Unimaginable Act." She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, CNN and many others.
People Magazine named her one of 15 women changing the world alongside Oprah, Hilary Clinton, and Malala last year. Glamour Magazine named her Woman of the Year in 2012.
And, the most prestigious of all - I have named her 'hero of the decade'! OK, maybe not quite the most prestigious of all. Nevertheless, this beautiful, young woman, driven by her suffering and by the horror of her little sister enduring the same evil, is well worthy of the title.
God bless her for overcoming the damage done to her and for taking this law across the US. I dearly hope and pray it (she) will come to Canada soon.