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Merryn refuses to be silent



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October 01, 2013 | 03:09 PM
Candid, open and without fear, Erin Merryn disclosed the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of two separate perpetrators to a large group of donors at the Walworth County Alliance for Children’s annual Tree House luncheon, which was held Thursday at the Grand Geneva Resort. Merryn, originally of Schaumburg, Ill., is an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and believes talking about the crimes raises awareness that leads to prevention. It also gives the victim back his or her voice and takes the power away from the predator. Merryn is no novice on the topic. She has written books, the first of which was published when she was a senior in high school, and she has been interviewed by Katie Couric, Oprah and Montel Williams. Last year, she was one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. Before speaking to the audience, Merryn didn’t hesitate to disclose her abuse to a reporter, whom she had never previously met. For Merryn it was another candid, casual conversation where she talked about a topic that many people don’t want to discuss.

“Your trust, your innocence, you can’t take back,” she said. “You can take back your voice.”

For Merryn talking about it is the point. Sexual assaults are occurring all the time, and unless children know how to talk about abuse, they don’t.

She points to the numbing statistic that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18.

“This is an epidemic,” Merryn said.

She talks about graduating from DARE, and learning eight different ways to say no to drugs. In school she learned what to do during a tornado or fire. She also learned about stranger danger and not taking candy from people she didn’t know.

However, no one told her that abuse can come at the hands of someone she trusts. She points to another painful statistic: that strangers only account for 7 percent of child sexual assaults. The remaining 93 percent comes from the hands of a predator that knows the child and is often trusted by the victim.

Merryn recently spoke at a small elementary school about her abuse, and urged any of the students to talk to a trusted adult if they had ever been victimized. That day five children disclosed abuse for the first time.

That’s another reason why Merryn is advocating Erin’s law. The law requires schools to teach age-appropriate curriculum about sexual abuse to students in prekindergarten through fifth-grade. The purpose of the educational effort is to get the victims to disclose abuse.

The law has been adopted in eight states and is being considered in a number of others. However, Wisconsin isn’t one of them. Merryn has written to a number of state lawmakers, but she hasn’t heard a response.

Wisconsin, specifically Lake Geneva, holds a special place in Merryn’s heart. When she was a child her family vacationed here. She loves to visit. The Lake Geneva Regional News also was the first paper to carry her story.

As Merryn told a reporter she couldn’t find a state lawmaker to take up the bill, Paula Hocking, a forensic interviewer with the Walworth County Alliance for Children and a child advocate, assured her that her group and others will work to make it law in Wisconsin.

Erin’s story

When Merryn was 6 her best friend, a girl named Ashley, had a giant doll house that Merryn loved to play with. When Merryn went to Ashley’s home Ashley’s uncle was normally asleep.

One night the two best friends had a sleepover at Ashley’s house. After an evening of Disney movies and childhood fun, the two went to sleep.

When sleeping, Ashley’s uncle entered the room. Merryn thought he was peeking in to check on them, as a good guardian normally would, but he instead walked into the room and sexually abused her.

This abuse continued. The predator told Merryn that if she told anyone he would hurt her. He knew where she lived, and she feared for her safety.

“The only messages I was getting was from the perpetrator,” she said.

She moved when she was 8. She thought her life would return to normal.

After moving she got in trouble at school, she wouldn’t spend the night at the homes of her new friends but no one asked her if she had been hurt.

She was labeled as “emotionally disturbed” at school.

At 11, her family stayed at The Cove of Lake Geneva. There her teenage cousin, Brian, assaulted her. The assaults continued at family functions and anytime she was around her cousin.

One day, Merryn’s younger sister said that Brian “was gross.” She knew what that meant and the two talked about being assaulted. They went to their parents and the police questioned Brian, who was still a juvenile.

As for legal trouble, Brian was ordered to undergo four sessions with a therapist. The detectives in Illinois never informed the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office that assaults occurred in Lake Geneva.

Merryn eventually wrote an angry email to her cousin, and to her surprise he responded. The two communicated for eight months. He admitted to the assaults and he apologized. He asked her to forgive him.

“When you learn to forgive you give yourself a gift,” she said.

A Walworth County Sheriff’s detective has told Merryn they could still go after Brian. Merryn said she would never do that. However, she hopes one day Ashley’s uncle will have to face a judge.

She knows there were other victims. After Merryn wrote her book, Ashley told her her uncle assaulted her as well. However, Ashley was taught this was normal because it was occurring with uncles on both sides of the family. Merryn also saw Ashley’s uncle assault another girl.

The uncle denies the assaults, and, so far, has avoided prosecution. Merryn knows that when she talks to large groups she is speaking to victims in the audience. After talking, she often has book signings. During these signings, members of the audience will disclose their abuse to her.

Sometimes they talk to Merryn, and other times they write a note on a napkin. Sometimes, Merryn is the first person they tell.

Advocacy center

Two things helped Merryn heal from her abuse, her faith and a child advocacy center.

Merryn said when she left a child advocacy center she knew she wanted to go back and let them know the difference it made in her life.

Interviewing children about abuse at a police station is a mistake, Merryn said.

“A police department is where the bad guys go,” Merryn said. “So kids won’t speak up because they are terrified and afraid.”

To learn more Merryn and Erin’s law visit www.erinmerryn.net.

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