Jun 11, 2014
01:07 PM
Connecticut Politics

Gov. Malloy Signs Erin’s Law on Sexual Abuse Curriculum; Connecticut Joins Growing National Effort

Gov. Malloy Signs Erin’s Law on Sexual Abuse Curriculum; Connecticut Joins Growing National Effort

Erin Merryn was named one of Glamour's 2012 Women of the Year for her work creating "Erin's Law."

Update: Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed Erin's Law, SB 203, on Wednesday, June 11. The bill, which requires age-appropriate sexual abuse education in schools, will take effect on July 1. Look for updates as Connecticut Magazine delves into what the signing of Erin's Law means for the state.

News that the governor had signed the legislation into law came indirectly through a release from his office on a number of bills he signed June 11.

“As a parent and someone whose wife spent years as an advocate for survivors and victims of sexual and domestic violence, this is an issue that is very dear to Governor Malloy," said the governor's press secretary, Samaia M. Hernandez. "The Governor was happy to join other states in supporting this bill, which aims to raise the awareness of sexual assault and abuse with an education prevention program for teachers with age-appropriate material for students.”

See our latest story, Erin’s Law Adopted, Connecticut to Implement Sexual Abuse Awareness Curriculum

After the legislation had been passed by the General Assembly, Hernandez had said, "The governor supports the goals and objectives of Erin’s Law and looks forward to reviewing the bill in the coming days." The driving force behind law, Erin Merryn, who came to Connecticut in March to lobby for the bill, is on a crusade to have it adopted in every state. She noted Connecticut's legislative approval in both a Facebook post and a Tweet, as she had earlier expressed appreciation on social media for the Connecticut Senate's approval.

 

Below is our March story on Merryn and her efforts, published in advance of Merryn coming to Connecticut to lobby for her bill and be honored by the group Jane Doe No More:

“We teach kids tornado drills, bus drills, fire drills. We teach kids the eight ways to say no to drugs. We’ve been doing that for decades and now we have bully prevention in schools. So why are we not educating kids if you’re being sexually abused to speak up and tell and not keep a secret? We tell them about stranger danger… [but most children] are being hurt by someone they know and trust."
—Erin Merryn

Erin Merryn was sexually abused for the first time just weeks before her seventh birthday. She was repeatedly raped by an adult neighbor until she was eight and a half, and saved from that sexual assault only by her family moving to another Illinois town.  

The reprieve was brief, though.

A family member began abusing her when she was 11, and that lasted until she was 13. Both times, Merryn was scared into silence, keeping the abuse secret until her younger sister revealed that the abuse was happening to her too.

Merryn spoke up at age 13 because she knew she would be believed.

“I had someone to back up my story,” says Merryn. When she was a senior in high school, she self-published her childhood diary – her one refuge during the abuse – as the book Stolen Innocence.

“I believe everyone is born with a purpose and I found my purpose through the pain that has taken place in my life,” Merryn says on her website.

She has become a public face of the often silent epidemic of the sexual assault of children.

In January 2010, she began the process advocating for enactment of a law in her home state of Illinois that would require age-appropriate sexual abuse education in schools, or Erin’s Law.

The measure was signed into law by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn in January 2013. Today, Erin's Law has been passed in 10 states, and is currently being considered in another 27 states, including Connecticut.

What would become Erin's Law for Connecticut is now Senate Bill 203, which had its public hearing Feb. 27 and was unanimously approved by the Children's Committee March 4, according to a press aide in the office of Senate Democrats. The next step is a vote in the full Senate, which is not yet scheduled.

A post on the Erin's Law Facebook page today (March 10) talks about where Merryn is lobbying for her law next:

Her goal is that one day – sooner rather than later – Erin’s Law will be in effect across the country. (The map below from the Erin's Law Facebook page shows progress across the country.)

For her work in this field, Merryn was named one of Glamour Magazine’s 2012 Women of the Year. She has also written two other books, Living For Today and An Unimaginable Act.

Now Merryn will be honored – in part for her story but also for what she has done for other victims in creating Erin’s Law – in Connecticut, at 5th Annual Dr. Henry C. Lee Award & Recognition Dinner March 21, being held by the group Jane Doe No More.

Peggy Panagrossi, executive director of the Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury, will also be honored. (More details on the dinner are below.)

Merryn’s is not a unique story.

The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted, bringing the number to a staggering 237,868 victims of sexual assault each year.

One of those victims was Donna Palomba of Connecticut.

The ordeal that followed her 1993 attack is well known in the state. After being raped by a masked assailant in her home, she spent more than a decade as “Jane Doe,” trying to get the crime solved. She went toe-to-toe with the Waterbury Police Department, which initially believed she had invented the attack. The crime was eventually solved through DNA evidence and with the help of one detective who never gave up. (Palomba’s story was featured in the October 2012 issue of Connecticut Magazine.)

Like Merryn, Palomba wrote a book chronicling her story, Jane Doe No More: My 15-Year Fight to Reclaim My Identity—A True Story of Survival, Hope, and Redemption, and founded her Naugatuck-based sexual abuse advocacy organization, Jane Doe No More, in 2007.

The mission is to improve the way “society responds to survivors of sexual assault through education, awareness, advocacy and support.” Jane Doe No More is multi-faceted by design, offering self-defense courses, survival techniques, support groups and education as a way of providing victims with the tools they need to reclaim their lives. The most important step in that process is reclaiming their identities.

The name Jane Doe No More, like every other aspect of the organization, stems from Palomba’s personal experience.

“We put a light on the perpetrator, but the victim often remains this vague, nebulous person,” says Palomba. “It diminishes who they are. They could be your brother or sister or mother. They have dreams and a whole life ahead of them.”

Five years ago, Palomba launched the Dr. Henry C. Lee Award & Recognition Dinner to honor those who are making a difference in this field.  Dr. Lee, founder of the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Sciences and a supporter of Palomba's during her struggle, was the first recipient of the award.

This year, Merryn and Panagrossi will receive the award, and Palomba is sure this year’s dinner will be “really special.” Presented by the Petit Family Foundation, the dinner will be held at The Waterview in Monroe on March 21, beginning at 6 p.m.

A Jane Doe No More scholarship will be awarded, and there will be silent and live auctions. Tickets cost $125 per person and include open bar, a cocktail reception, dinner and dessert. Tables of 10 may be reserved, and event sponsors are being sought.

“It’s so impressive that she started Erin’s Law and her mission to get it passed in all 50 states within the next year or two,” Palomba says of Merryn. “Her story is so compelling and it epitomizes the mission of Jane Doe No More.”

While in Connecticut, Merryn will also speak at a press conference at the Capitol to “drum up support” for Erin’s Law being adopted in the state. Merryn has an online fundraising campaign to help offset her expenses as she goes around the country lobbying for passage of her law.

“We teach kids tornado drills, bus drills, fire drills. We teach kids the eight ways to say no to drugs. We’ve been doing that for decades and now we have bully prevention in schools. So why are we not educating kids if you’re being sexually abused to speak up and tell and not keep a secret? We tell them about stranger danger… [but most children] are being hurt by someone they know and trust,” says Merryn.

Jane Doe No More will also honor Panagrossi (right) for the work her organization, Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury, does for sexual assault and domestic abuse victims. “Peggy has been a fixture with domestic assault as the executive director for over 26 years,” says Palomba.

Safe Haven was founded in 1978 to provide support for the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Panagrossi has expanded the organization’s services since coming on board as the executive director over two decades ago. It provides a variety of support groups, counseling and advocacy in addition to their 24-hour hotline and shelter for battered women and children.

“We want to support you in any way that we can,” says Panagrossi.

Behind the director stands a team of tireless employees and volunteers who make the Waterbury organization the “safe haven” they strive to be.

“I’m a little embarrassed,” Panagrossi says of being honored by Jane Doe No More. “I’m accepting the honor, but on behalf of the staff. They’re in the trenches. They’re the ones that really need the kudos.”

Tickets and sponsorships for the 5th Annual Dr. Henry C. Lee Award & Recognition Dinner can be purchased on the Jane Doe No More website under “Events.” 

Gov. Malloy Signs Erin’s Law on Sexual Abuse Curriculum; Connecticut Joins Growing National Effort

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