Helping abused children reclaim their voice

April 16, 2019

DeKALB – When Erin Merryn was 6 years old, she went to spend the night at her best friend’s house in Schaumburg. They played with a doll house, watched Disney movies and then fell asleep. Later than night, Merryn was sexually abused by her friend’s uncle.

“I started screaming,” Merryn recounted. “He told me if I didn’t shut up, he was going to tie me to the bed and suffocate me. And then he raped me. ‘This is our little secret,’ he said. ‘I know where you live. I will come get you.’ ”

It began an almost decade-long period of abuse that Merryn endured – first at the hands of her friend’s uncle, and then, by her older cousin, Brian. Now she’s on a national crusade to have personal body-safety instruction as a requirement for K-12 public schools across the country. Called Erin’s Law, the curriculum teaches children about the differences between safe and unsafe touches, safe and unsafe secrets, and how to disclose their abuse to a trusted adult or friend. Former Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into state law in 2013.

Merryn shared her story and passion for advocating for the voices of abused children during a community presentation Monday at the Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Health & Wellness Center, hosted by DeKalb County Family Service Agency and the Larson & Darby Group.

On a family trip up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to visit her grandparents, Merryn, then 11, awoke one night to her older cousin Brian touching her inappropriately while she slept on an air mattress. She tried to convince herself he did it in his sleep, but it continued until she was 13. She began acting out in school and exhibiting anger issues, potential signs of a child being abused, according to statistics from the Children’s Advocacy Center, a branch of the DeKalb County Family Service Agency. Numbers also show that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys will be abused before the age of 18.

For Merryn, the turning point came when she discovered her younger sister had also been abused by Brian. At family gatherings, holidays, birthday parties and when she was baby-sitting, he meticulously cornered each of them separately.

Merryn thought if she and her sister both came forward, people might believe them. Her parents reported Brian to the police. She and her sister were taken to the Children’s Advocacy Center in Hoffman Estates.

“Through that Children’s Advocacy Center [support] group, I reclaimed my voice,” Merryn said. “Some of the best people in the world are those who work at the CAC prosecuting these monsters.”

Now 15 years into her advocacy journey, Merryn has persuaded 34 states to sign Erin’s Law into being, and has written books personalizing her journey along the way, speaking about the importance of child advocacy centers and ensuring children are empowered to report their abuse.