The Defenders

Erin Merryn

“I could not go into the past and use White-Out to erase any events; instead, I had to find a way to use my pain to help me heal and grow. I had to stare darkness in the face and accept that I could not change the past, but I could build a better future.”

Erin Merryn was sexually abused and raped by a male neighbor from ages 6 to 8. She didn’t tell anyone, because her rapist threatened her. She was held back in first grade, and the school placed her on behavior intervention plans because no one could understand her anger and tantrums. She was sexually abused again from ages 11 to 13 by her older cousin. Again, she didn’t tell anyone about the abuse because her abuser told her, “Nobody will believe you. You have no proof. You will destroy our large extended family. This is our secret. Don’t tell anyone.” She finally broke her silence and told her parents about the abuse at age 13, after her sister confided that she too had been abused by the same relative.

As a result of the abuse, Erin suffered from nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. She attempted suicide at 16 years old and started to self-harm between the ages of 16 and 18. When she went to college at 19 years old, she became anorexic. She struggled with the eating disorder for the next four years. In retrospect, she came to view her efforts to control food as a way to take back control from her abusers. Erin also struggled with trusting men, and she feared relationships and intimacy.

At the age of 23, Erin began writing to legislators, urging them to require that personal body safety be taught to school children. She started advocating for the passage of a law in Illinois, her home state, and succeeded in getting it passed. It became known as “Erin’s Law.” It was the first law in the U.S. to mandate child sexual abuse prevention education. Erin traveled from state to state, testifying in front of lawmakers, to encourage them to adopt their own versions of Erin’s Law. In 2015, President Obama signed the federal version of Erin’s Law, providing federal funding for schools to use to educate students about child sexual abuse. As of July 2019, 37 states had passed their own child sexual abuse prevention education laws.

Today, Erin is a nationally recognized speaker, author, and advocate. She holds a master’s degree in social work and has written three books about her experiences. She is also the founder and president of a nonprofit with the mission of getting Erin’s Law passed in all 50 states.


Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse that includes sexual activity with a minor. The majority of perpetrators are someone the child or family knows. A perpetrator does not have to be an adult. Child sexual abuse is a violation of trust and authority as well as physical abuse. The abuser takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability. They often manipulate victims to stay quiet about the sexual abuse using coercion and intimidation.

Child sexual abuse is widespread. In 2016, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated or found strong evidence to indicate that 57,329 children were victims of sexual abuse. A 2014 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health states that 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. Eighty-two percent of all victims are female.

As in Erin’s case, child sexual abuse can have long-lasting effects. Victims are three times more likely than non-victims to experience major depressive episodes as adults. They are four times more likely to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as adults. They are also four times more likely to experience alcohol and drug abuse.


  • Erin’s Law: Learn how you can support Erin’s efforts to get Erin’s Law passed in all 50 states.
  • RAINN: Learn more about child sexual abuse, including warning signs and where to get help, from the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
  • Stop It Now!: Read a fact sheet about behaviors and actions to look out for that may indicate risk of child sexual abuse and learn about efforts to stop child sexual abuse.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.