McHENRY – From the outside looking in, it seemed like the perfect childhood: loving parents, two sisters, a safe neighborhood, good schools.
In Daisy Scouts, Erin Merryn met another youngster named Ashley, and the two became best friends, having sleepovers and playing in Ashley’s life-size dollhouse for hours.
Behind closed doors, however, Merryn’s life was much darker.
From ages 6 to 8, she was sexually abused by her friend’s live-in uncle. She recalled one particularly horrifying night when she, Ashley and another friend slept over, and the uncle raped them, one by one.
“At that age, I didn’t know how to put into words what had happened,” Merryn said. “I didn’t know what sex was; I didn’t know what rape was.”
This lack of education is what Merryn, 26, has made her life’s work to reverse.
She spoke about her mission and her message at an in-service training event co-sponsored by the Human Service Network for McHenry County and 22nd Judicial Circuit Family Violence Coordinating Council on Tuesday morning at the Shah Center in McHenry. Ninety-five attendees from agencies such as the Mental Health Board and Child Advocacy Center, faith-based groups and private counselors were in attendance.
For many years, Merryn has worked to raise sexual abuse awareness, and it was her work that gave impetus to the creation and passage of Erin’s Law, which was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Feb. 14.
The law mandates that Illinois schools provide age-appropriate curriculum on sexual abuse for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Merryn and a 15-member task force now are working to find and create the best curriculum for schools in Illinois.
Even after her family eventually left their Schaumburg home, and Merryn was able to switch schools, she couldn’t leave her past behind.
She endured even further sexual abuse from age 11 to 13 from an older male cousin.
“He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone. If you do, you will destroy this family,’ ” Merryn said. So she kept quiet.
It wasn’t until she found out that her cousin was doing the same thing to her 11-year-old sister that the girls went forward and began the process toward healing. Merryn’s goal is to prevent other children from suffering the same trials that she, her friend and her sister endured in their childhood.
“We’re teaching our kids ‘stranger danger,’ but the truth of the matter is that 93 percent of the time it’s someone in the family, someone you know and trust,” Merryn said.
“As students in Illinois, we’re educated on tornado drills, fire drills, bus drills and stranger danger, but we never learned about sexual abuse, safe touches and safe secrets.”
Fortunately for Merryn, she was able to turn the horrific incidents of her youth into a positive life path. She turned the detailed entries of her childhood diary into the contents of her first book, “Stolen Innocence,” which was published in 2005. Her second book, “Living for Today,” came out in 2009.
Merryn said Erin’s Law has passed both the Senate and House in Missouri and was awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature within the next three weeks. It also has passed Iowa’s Senate and is on the table in Massachusetts.