Most of you who read the Bordas Blogs on a regular basis will recall that I am actively involved with the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, more generally known by its acronym, WVCAN. I currently serve as WVCAN President and have been a member of the Board of Directors for over four years. Last week, I participated in yet another event that reminded me of how very important the mission of WVCAN is in the protection of the most valuable resource in our state: our children.
Erin Merryn is a young woman who was subjected to horrible sexual abuse between the ages of 6-8, and again between the ages of 11-13. As an adult, Erin recognized that during her childhood years, she had never been taught about sexual abuse. Her classmates had not been given age-appropriate techniques to recognize child sexual abuse, nor to report those signs to a trusted adult. Teachers and other school personnel had not been specifically trained to recognize signs of an abused child. Parents had not been given information to help them recognize warning signs of child sexual abuse. Recognizing that such training may well have saved her from years of nightmarish abuse, Erin set out to make a difference. In 2009, Vermont became the first state to mandate child sexual abuse prevention programs in its schools, all because of Erin’s efforts. Today, 32 states – including West Virginia – require such education.
Three years ago, working along with WVCAN Executive Director Emily Chittenden-Laird, I helped to draft legislation that created a task force to study the issue of child sexual abuse in WV, and to fashion a program aimed at educating and empowering children and adults alike to recognize the signs of abuse; and to take appropriate steps to have it stopped. Last week, I stood in the Governor’s Conference Room in Charleston as Governor Jim Justice added WV to the list of states that have approved and implemented Erin’s Law.
Erin’s Law was approved in WV first because of the effort and determination of Erin Merryn to ensure that no child ever again has to endure the horrors that she suffered in her youth. She is the champion of the legislation, and no one could credibly argue to the contrary. There are, however, other champions in each state that should not be forgotten. WVCAN made this legislation a priority. Our lobbyist, Ben Beakes, made certain that the bill stayed on track, in the forefront of the minds of legislators. Our executive director, whose energy, compassion and commitment never cease to amaze, made sure she was available on a moment’s notice to travel to the capitol to meet with senators and representatives who had questions or concerns. She was armed to the teeth with facts, figures and studies to support the critical need for this legislation. (One in every 10 children in WV will be the victim of sexual abuse by their 18th birthday. One in every 10. You probably were not aware of that fact. Neither were most of our legislators.) After all was said and done – after all of the meetings and hearings and proposed amendments and conferences – the bills passed both the senate and the house. Unanimously.
West Virginia’s children are safer now than they were a month ago. The tireless efforts of Emily Chittenden-Laird and Ben Beakes will save WV children from experiencing sexual abuse and will rescue others from that horror. One of my favorite sayings is, “No person stands so tall as when she stoops to help a child.” Emily and Ben are human skyscrapers.