Voices of Alaska: Erin’s Law: an overdue ounce of prevention

  • By First Lady Donna Walker
  • Tuesday, May 26, 2015 3:51pm
  • Opinion

We were lucky, my sister and I. As kids we were inseparable and had that built-in buddy system not all kids have. Still, we had some close calls. Our parents were more reactive than proactive. Had we known the reasoning behind their reactions, we would have been better equipped.

Only when we mentioned that “nice man” who repeatedly pulled over at our bus stop to chat and give us candy, were we told to run into the house the next time it happened. We did and that was the last time he stopped.

Once, Mama found our uncle holding us both a bit too snug on his lap. She knew there was history there and took us aside and said, “Don’t ever let Uncle Ron touch you. Why? Because I said so.”

As 6- and 7-year-olds, we were delighted that the 13-year-old boy from the next neighborhood came over to buy our mud pies. We were mad when our parents told him to scram and that was not their word choice. A few years later, he was convicted of raping a young girl.

At 10 and 11, we walked into Jimmy Gardner’s Bakery to get our favorite doughnuts. A man at a corner table motioned us over and said, “Pick out all you want. My treat.” The cashier caught my eye and firmly shook her head, “No!” I pulled on my sister’s arm and demanded, “Let’s go now!”

A year later, my sister entered puberty. We walked to the gas station behind our home to buy penny candy and the male attendant grabbed her breast. We ran home and told our parents. Our dad, the former linebacker, hightailed it up the hill and punched his lights out. Southern justice.

You see, this occurred in the Bible Belt in the 1950’s and 60’s. Times have changed and not for the better. Every six minutes, a child is sexually abused in the United States. Alaska has one of the top five child abuse rates in the nation. It usually occurs without a witness. It is usually a practice of grooming and not an act of violence. And while many parents teach about stranger danger, over 90 percent of the time, the perpetrator is someone the child knows and trusts.

In 2014, Bill and I applauded then-Governor Sean Parnell’s support of Erin’s Law, which was unanimously passed by the Senate. Despite having 21 co-sponsors in the House, the bill got stuck in committee. I recall a post-session interview with Governor Parnell, where his disappointment that the bill died was palpable.

In 2015, to the rescue came the bipartisan efforts of two Republican and two Democrat legislators who introduced four versions of Erin’s law. House Majority Leader Charisse Millett (R) sponsored and Representative Geran Tarr (D) co-sponsored HB 44 known as the Alaska Safe Children’s Act because of the inclusion of Brie’s Law addressing teen dating violence. It passed the House by a vote of 34-6.

The photo capturing Representative Tarr in tears with hands clasped in gratitude after the vote was taken also brought me to tears. She has been unwavering yet gracious, patient and indefatigable in her mission to protect Alaska’s children. Despite the efforts and advocacy of Senator Lesil McGuire (R) and Senator Berta Gardner (D), in contrast to the unanimous vote of support in 2014, HB44 was parked in the Senate at session’s end.

Knowing many of our public school teachers personally, I appreciate the responsibilities they shoulder and understand the concern about tasking them with more. However, it seems this is an opportunity where an ounce of prevention would be worth a pound of cure.

Equipping children to ward off abuse sparing them from trauma and the resulting emotional, physical, psychological ills should put healthier, safer, more stable and learning-focused children in the classroom. Teachers should eventually be able to spend more time teaching and less time disciplining, intervening, comforting and counseling.

Many community partners such as the Alaska Children’s Trust, the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault are stepping up to offer assistance in implementation of this law. Age-appropriate implementation should include techniques to teach children to recognize child sexual abuse, equip them with skills to reduce vulnerability and encourage them to report the abuse. It is suggested that this should be an annual program with more than one, and ideally four, classroom sessions.

Twenty-one states have adopted Erin’s Law. Alaska should have been among the first. Knowing how many times my sister and I encountered risky situations in a small rural community a half-century ago, I cringe thinking of what far too many of our children are encountering today.

Parents, we must do our part to equip our children with age-appropriate awareness and skills to assure their safety. Sadly, this will not happen in every home. Therefore, I join the sea of Alaskans urging the immediate passage of HB 44.

As First Lady, Donna Walker serves as the Honorary Chair of the Alaska Children’s Trust. She is a mother, grandmother, attorney and a former Office of Children’s Services caseworker. She spent many years as a youth leader and Sunday School teacher.

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