Combatting Child Sexual Abuse: Changes to Erin’s Law Are on Their Way

by Maureen A. Lemon

Ten years ago, Illinois was the first state to pass Erin’s Law. See 105 ILCS 5/10-23.13. The law is named after Erin Merryn, a child sexual abuse survivor, activist, and author whose life mission is to combat child sexual abuse.

A picture containing ground, dirty Description automatically generated Erin grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where her school taught about “Stranger Danger.” Yet, Erin’s abuser wasn’t a stranger. Like 90% of child abuse victims, Erin knew the person who repeatedly abused her and warned her to keep the abuse “a secret.” Erin has since dedicated her life’s work to combatting child sexual abuse. The goal of Erin’s Law is to help children understand what is inappropriate when it comes to touching and relationships, and to give children the resources necessary to report abuse. It further requires Illinois school districts to adopt and implement a policy addressing sexual abuse of children.

Many have felt that Illinois’ Erin’s Law could be strengthened by providing schools with more information about what curricula to use and which organizations to partner with to implement the law. Moreover, until recently, Erin’s Law encouraged but did not require age-appropriate curriculum for students in grades pre-k through 5th grade; training for school personnel on child sexual abuse; educational information for parents and guardians; available counseling and resources for students affected by sexual abuse; and emotional and educational support for a victim to be successful in school.

Sadly, child sexual abuse continues to be a grave concern in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse. Shockingly, 91% of child sexual abuse perpetrators are known by the child or the child’s family.

Fortunately, changes to Erin’s Law are here—and more may be on their way.

Public Act 102-610

Following a comprehensive report by the Make Sexual and Severe Physical Abuse Fully Extinct (“Make S.A.F.E.”) Task Force, the General Assembly passed Public Act 102-610, which amends Erin’s Law in several ways.

First, by July 1, 2022, each school district’s child sexual abuse policy shall (rather than may) include the components previously encouraged under Erin’s Law.

Second, consistent with the Illinois Critical Health Problems and Comprehensive Health Education Act, the age-appropriate curriculum must now be in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 (instead of grade 5).

Third, Erin’s Law now requires that the curriculum for students, training for staff, and educational information made available to parents or guardians provided in the student handbook on the warning signs of child abuse each be “evidence-informed.” Such practices are created using components of evidence-based treatments or curricula but do need to meet the stricter “evidence-based” standard. Experts believe that implementation of these strengthened aspects of Erin’s Law will provide students and staff the knowledge and means to ‘speak up’ and stop child sexual abuse.

Fourth, beginning July 1, 2022, each school policy developed for school personnel, students, and parents pursuant to Erin’s Law must include:

  • Increased awareness and knowledge of likely warning signs of child abuse;
  • Increased awareness and knowledge of grooming behaviors and how to report those behaviors;
  • Increased awareness of appropriate relationships between school personnel and students;
  • How to prevent child abuse from happening;
  • How to report child abuse to law enforcement authorities and to DCFS;
  • How to report grooming behaviors; and
  • Information about Children’s Advocacy Centers and sexual assault crisis centers and how to access the centers serving the school district.

Additionally, these policies must include evidence-informed training for school personnel on preventing, recognizing, reporting, and responding to child sexual abuse and grooming behavior. Such training needs to be provided no later than January 31 of each year.

Fifth, and relatedly, school board policies must define prohibited “grooming” behaviors and boundary violations for school personnel and how to report them. The new Act uses the definition of grooming found in the Illinois Criminal Code (720 ILCS 5/11-25), which narrowly defines “grooming” as knowingly using electronic devices or engaging in online activities to (or attempt to) seduce, solicit, lure, or entice a child under 17 years old to engage in unlawful sexual conduct. Problematically, grooming is typically not limited to online behavior. Rather, it is a gradual process in which offenders gain the trust of their victims through ignoring natural and appropriate boundaries long before sexual abuse occurs. Indeed, grooming typically starts with seemingly benign or subtle behaviors that can be easily mistaken as simply caring for the student. Because of the difficulty in spotting grooming until a student/school personnel relationship becomes romantic or sexual, experts recommend that schools clarify boundaries and boundary violations.

More Changes on the Way?

Additional changes to Erin’s Law may be considered in the General Assembly’s upcoming veto session via House Bill 1975, which would add to the gains made in P.A. 102-610. For example, the Bill would install a robust definition of “sexual misconduct” that includes (but is not limited to) a sexual/romantic invitation; dating; meeting privately outside of the employee’s professional role; sexual/romantic dialog; and self-disclosure or physical exposure of a sexual, romantic, or erotic nature. House Bill 1975 would also require schools to develop an employee code of professional conduct policy that (1) incorporates the definition of “sexual misconduct”; (2) identifies expectations for employee relationships with students; (3) establishes guidelines for transporting students, taking, or possessing a photo or video of a student; and (4) sets parameters for meeting with a student outside of the employee’s professional role.

In the wake of this recent legislation, school districts must update their Erin’s Law policies and revamp their child sexual abuse curricula, employee training, and parent information by July 1, 2022. If House Bill 1975 becomes law, the requirements will become more concrete. Stakeholders should begin to identify local expectations and guidelines for employee-student boundaries given student ages, grade levels, and developmental levels. This will ensure school districts can better combat child sexual abuse within their facilities and community. Please reach out to your attorney if you have questions regarding the changes to Erin’s Law.