There is a push by local lawmakers and educators to equip children to identify and speak up about sexual abuse.
Several bills pre-filed for the 2017 General Assembly session target human trafficking, child abduction and child abuse, a response to a rise in reports of those types of crimes in recent years.
A bill backed by two Northern Virginia state senators would require schools to present “age appropriate” material that teaches students as young as 6 years old to recognize and prevent child abduction, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse. The bill, called Erin’s law, is named after Erin Merryn, an Illinois woman who was sexually abused as a little girl and is now an advocate for the prevention of child abuse.
She is helping drum up support for the bill, SB828, which state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33), of Leesburg, is the chief patron and state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31), who also represents part of Loudoun, is a sponsor.
Human trafficking reports in Virginia have ticked up from 126 in 2013 (70 of those sex trafficking) to 145 in 2015 (103 of those sex trafficking), according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
So far this year, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit has investigated more than 60 child sex abuse cases.
Sheriff Mike Chapman said carefully instructing students what to watch for in a person that may mean them harm is a good step in preventing these crimes. “I think it’s important to get this message to kids so they’ll be able to recognize any sort of attempt of abuse or any sort of actions, so long as it’s age appropriate for the kids,” he said.
In Loudoun’s public schools, fourth through 10th graders receive Family Life Education, a more comprehensive program than what used to be known as sex ed. The school system is revising its curriculum to include more information on human trafficking. That will bring it into alignment with a state law passed this year that calls for public schools to include lessons on human trafficking by next school year.
Sheila Jones, Loudoun’s Family Life Education supervisor, also said her department is working with the Sheriff’s Office to prepare presentations for students on how to recognize and prevent human trafficking.
“All data we’ve seen points to an increase in Human Trafficking in our geographic area,” Jones said, “so we have required training this year and last year for FLE teachers, in preparation for the new topic in our curriculum next year.”
In other areas, the school system already exceeds state guidelines. For example, the program is in compliance with a new law that requires Virginia schools, by next academic year, to teach students about dating violence and the characteristics of abusive relationships at least once in middle school and at least twice in high school.
The sheriff’s office has also tweaked its technology safety program, originally designed for parents, to make it appropriate for teenagers. The program teaches sixth and ninth grade students to detect and steer clear of internet predators.
Wexton said that Loudoun County’s FLE program does a good job of “talking to kids about these tough topics and helping keep kids safe.” But many Virginia school systems do not.
Most lessons related to sexual abuse tell students to be especially careful of strangers. But, as Wexton noted, more often than not, a child’s abuser is someone he or she knows and is in a position of trust.
She acknowledged that teaching students to recognize abuse could be uncomfortable, but it is important. “The best way to prevent it is to talk about it,” she said, “and teach kids to recognize it and empower them to report it and make it stop.”
Merryn said she’s already seeing the effects of Erin’s law in states that have codified the legislation. The bill has been made law in 28 states, most recently in Maryland and Delaware.
“Many reports are coming out of students disclosing to a trusted adult immediately after being taught it,” she said in a prepared statement. “Just last month an Illinois man was sentenced to 40 years after a child told her teacher right after being taught Erin’s Law. Help me give Virginia students that same voice.”
When the School Board considered cutting some FLE teachers during last spring’s budget deliberations, several teachers recounted stories of teens leaving unhealthy relationships or even feeling safe enough to speak up about sexual abuse they were enduring. “They feel they can express their questions and their concerns to us,” Dee Jefferson said in tears at during April 13 budget hearing. “We never embarrass; we empower.”
Several other bills that target sexual abuse and human trafficking have been pre-filed for the 2017 General Assembly session. HB625, introduced by Del. Robert B. Bell (R-58) will expand the definition of “minor” as it relates to victims of abduction for the purpose of concubinage or prostitution to include anyone younger than 18. Another bill, HB678, introduced by Del. James A. “Jay” Leftwich (R-78), would require all law enforcement personnel involved in criminal investigations or assigned to vehicle or street patrol duties undergo training to be sensitive and aware of human trafficking offenses.
Wexton said there is clear political will in Richmond to address the growing problem of human trafficking and she expects legislation designed to equip teachers and law enforcement to combat it will gain bipartisan support from lawmakers.
The General Assembly’s 2017 session begins Jan. 13.