Published October 21, 2022
Judith Olin discusses Erin’s Law, which mandates child sexual abuse prevention curricula in schools. She discusses the weaknesses in the implementation of Erin’s Law in New York and the critical need for training school professionals in responding to children who disclose sexual abuse.
Keywords: Erin’s Law, child sexual abuse prevention education, teen dating violence prevention
The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the University at Buffalo
Podcast Season 5, Episode 30
Podcast recording date: October 7, 2022
Host-producer: Simon Honig
Speaker: Judith Olin
Contact information: BaldyCenter@buffalo.edu
Podcast transcript begins.
Simon: Welcome to the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy Podcast. I'm your host, Simon Honig. Today I am joined by Judith Olin, a clinical professor in the School of Law at the University of Buffalo. Professor Olin currently teaches a child abuse and neglect seminar, as well as directing the Family Violence and Women's Rights Clinic. Before teaching at UB, she was an Erie County prosecutor specializing in domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault cases. This discussion advances the topic of Erin's Law and child abuse, as well as honoring domestic violence awareness month this October. Professor Olin, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate your time.
Judith: You're welcome.
Simon: In preparation for this interview, I've seen the memo on Erin’s Law. So, to begin with, could you kind of explain for our audience, you know, what is Erin's Law and what makes it important.
Judith: Well, Erin Merryn, um, is a, uh, child sexual abuse survivor who went on to lead a initiative to mandate child sexual abuse prevention curriculum curricula in, uh, public schools for children all across the United States.
Simon: And I've seen that the regulation is looking at public schools to employ, um, the curricula for students, obviously, and also school personnel, caregivers, parents. So with, you know, students and school personnel, those kinds of things could be taught in the kind of school environment. But why is it so important for the parents to be included in on this, uh, kind of course?
Judith: Well, Erin's Law in its pure form, contains five different components or requirements. It targets all public schools in a given state to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse prevention program. It's for students in pre-K through grade 12, um, teaching age appropriate techniques to recognize child sexual abuse and how a child can tell a trusted adult, while also training school personnel, meaning teachers, teachers aids, lunch, lunchroom attendants, everybody. Right. Because you never know who a child might end up telling, (Simon: right) in a school and parents. So about the warning signs of child sexual abuse with available resources.
So the way that Erin’s Law is supposed to be, supposed to look like, it contains those, all of those five components, unfortunately, very few states have adopted it the way it was meant to be. Uh, I believe that, that Ms. Merryn is from Illinois. I believe that Illinois was the first state to implement it, and that in that state it is being, uh, implemented and applied in the manner that it was intended. Now, as a contrast in New York state, while we, the legislature did pass a version of Erin’s Law in July of 2020, it's really a very watered-down version, and it's not clear exactly how it's going to be implemented. Uh, so I think it's really very disappointing that the version of Erin's Lw that New York state passed, um, is nowhere near what it needs to be.
Simon: So, in New York State specifically, what do you perceive to be kind of weaker than what Illinois kind of has as its model statute?
Judith: Well, first of all, the New York statute, it's codified in the education law Section 803-B, and it only covers K through 8, where Erin's Law in its pure form is pre-K. So four year olds, three and four year olds, right through 12. Um, so number one, that's a problem. It also states that, that the program shall include students and parents. So it has to include students and parents. It's mandatory, but it doesn't have to include teachers and staff to whom children often disclose. So that's another big gaping hole.
The regulations are very, very vague and pretty much mirror the language of the statute. It doesn't talk about how often students should be educated. It doesn't include mandatory instruction for non-students. So, you know, parent and teachers. So, uh, it doesn't require any particular type of curriculum to be used. Uh, it says, well, it should be developed and consultation with school counselors, social workers, psychologists, parents and community members.
But it's very, very weak. And I believe that, uh, Ms. Merante in some of her field interviews has found by, you know, speaking to people who have boots on the ground, that it's, that a lot of schools haven't, um, started to implement it yet, or that if they are, it's not, um, comprehensive. Because if you don't have mandatory training for teachers, and if a child discloses to a teacher and the teacher hasn't been trained, they may not know what they're supposed to do. 52% of all child abuse cases are identified by school personnel. That's more than any other profession. So more school personnel are making these reports than any other mandated reporter. So it's especially important that they receive training.
Simon: So, as the law is kind of, you know, an ideal statute is kind of compartmentalized into those five requirements that you mentioned as an idea, as an ideal statute goes, is that curriculum like fully laid out in the statute, or what does that kind of model statute look like?
Judith: Right, Good question. So in looking at, um, some elements of the curriculum in the Illinois statute, um, it talks about age appropriate and evidence informed curriculum. So right there you are, you know, the educators are immediately on notice that they have to tailor the curriculum based on the age of the student and that they have to use a curriculum that is evidence informed as well as having a informational informed educational information to parents provided in the school handbook. So it's, it's very specific saying that, you know, this information has to be in a very prominent place. The other thing that I think is really important, um, and good about the Illinois law is it also states that a school district shall include in its policy in all training materials, a definition of prohibited rooming behaviors and boundary violations for school personnel. Now, there has been an absolute epidemic of children being sexually abused in schools, all different kinds of schools, fancy private schools, public schools, boarding schools.
There's been a tremendous amount of journalism devoted to that right here in western New York, some of our, you know, finest private schools, some of our prominent public schools, Um, it's really been rampant. And the fact that New York doesn't include anything about that, I think is, is, is lacking. This kind of issue comes up all of the time with teachers who, even if they aren't actually sexually abusing God forbid a child, they may be engaging in inappropriate grooming type behavior. Uh, maybe chatting, maybe texting with the student, maybe going on their social media account, maybe commenting on their appearance. Even being alone in the room with the student with the door closed is inappropriate behavior. And schools should all have policies that prevent these kinds of one-on-one unsupervised contact between, um, students and teachers. So that's a huge gap, um, in the New York statute because it really has been a huge problem.
Simon: So in looking at the other statutes that, I think it's at 37 states proclaimed to pass, um, some form of Erin’s Law, um, I've seen that a lot of 'em have opt out, so their parents, so parents can, you know, opt their children out of this kind of curriculum. Why, in your opinion, do you think, uh, some of these states fail to implement Erin's Law to its fullest capacity?
Judith: I think that there's a real disconnect with some parents who think, oh no, I don't want my child to learn anything about child sexual abuse. But the, and so they opt them out of the curriculum. But unfortunately, the irony is in that about 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator of the abuse is a person who is known to the child. Within, it could be someone within the family, it could be, uh, a neighbor, an older cousin. So the idea that parents would be allowed to opt their children out, um, I think is very wrong. So that's, I think, very problematic. And again, if you don't include the teachers or the school personnel, they may react in really poor ways. So, for example, for those of us who have experience in this field, we know that if a child is, makes a disclosure of child sexual abuse to a trusted adult, um, it's really important how you respond to that child.
You don't want to show horror or pity or start patting them on the head and saying, Oh, you poor thing. I mean, it's important to really remain neutral, non-judgmental, not to show any kind of disgust or negative reaction and just encourage the child to tell you what happened. But a lot of people who aren't trained wouldn't understand that. They might think, oh, oh my goodness, I'm, you know, I have to show this child how, how terrible I feel, um, because this happened to them. But that would be exactly the wrong thing to do, and it also could cause a child to just clam up and stop talking about it. So that training is extremely important. I think that teachers have, public school teachers are often underpaid, overworked. We need only look at the city of Buffalo to see that they're paid far less than their suburban counterparts.
And to be honest, when you call CPS, you know, if, if you're, if a child makes a disclosure and you ca you have to call CPS, you're probably gonna have to stay after hours, work extra time that you, you know, you're probably not gonna be compensated for. Then you have to fill out a report. Um, and so unfortunately, there's some disincentive there for teachers who are already so, um, so busy, uh, and can be just overtaxed. So it's very important for teachers to get the training and to get the support and to set up protocols within the school so that if a child makes a disclosure and the teacher needs to attend to that, that they can get the support that they need with their class.
Simon: And I would imagine that on the, on the child's end, you know, they can feel a little safer in making those disclosures when they know that the adults around them have received, you know, a training of this kind.
Judith: Right. I mean, the other thing too, and I believe that Ms. Merente raises this in her paper, that whenever these trainings are conducted in a school, children usually disclose after that (Simon: mm-hmm). Following the training, they will seek out a trusted adult because part of the training is to encourage children to disclose and report, and they're gonna seek out a trusted adult, and they're going to disclose, um, what happened to them. The CDC, I think, says one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience some kind of sexual abuse. I think the number could be higher for boys.
I think there's a common understanding that it's more difficult for boys to disclose that there can be more shame attached to that for a male than for a female. Um, and also these figures could be inaccurate because there's a lot of under reporting of child sexual abuse. I mean, all you need to do is to read about the cases in the Catholic Church and about how some child sexual abuse survivors just bury what happened to them until they're adults. And these experiences can cause adverse mental health, physical health, and finally they need to disclose it could be 30, 40 years later. So, um, yeah.
Simon: In your time as an Erie County prosecutor and as a current practicing attorney in UB’s clinic, has Erin’s Law been, um, applicable in real world cases? And would you expect it to be more applicable if you know New York hopefully properly implements Erin’s Law to its full extent.
Judith: I, as a prosecutor, I prosecuted child's sexual abuse cases. Um, so Erin’s Law wasn't directly applicable, but I do remember one case that one of my fellow prosecutors, um, worked on, and in that particular case, this was a young man who disclosed, uh, abuse. It was a male authority figure in his life. I don't know if it was a coach or, um, a teacher or someone, you know, a youth group leader. But the reason that the young man made the disclosure was due to a child sexual abuse prevention program at his school. And he came home and immediately told his mother, and he was beside himself, um, because he realized that he had been sexually abused.
And the case was prosecuted and the perpetrator got a long jail sentence and appealed it, and it was upheld on appeal. So I certainly have seen cases where, because of curriculum like Erin’s Law, that children have come forward and have made disclosures, um, once they know, because some children may not even have recognized that they were a victim while it was happening.
And perpetrators frequently, if not always, um, are coercive toward the child and tell them that it's a secret and that they have to keep this secret and never tell anybody. So, um, so yes, I think while it doesn't directly affect, um, actual cases, it definitely affects, you know, the number of victims that we're going to see.
And hopefully having this kind of prevention education will reduce the incidents of child sexual abuse leading to fewer victims. And child sexual abuse has declined over the years. It has, um, significantly, at least in terms of reported cases. And I think that part of it could be, I, you know, I don't have research to back it up, but part of it could be that there is more prevention education available now than there was in the past. So preventing cases from turning into court cases from turning into prosecutions, I mean, that's really what you want to continue to see it continue to diminish.
Simon: So what about, um, the education program kind of helps the child realize, I think you just touched on it, but you know, you said, you know, a child may not realize that they were a part of that until they have that program. Is it just like educating the child on what kinds of behavior constitute abuse in that, in that setting? (Judith: Yeah.)
Judith: Yes. I mean, sometimes you might have a perpetrator who, who grooms a child and they might first just engage in like, play fighting or tickling. And if it's a young child, I mean, they might, and then it can progress into touching a child, you know, in an inappropriate way. And a child may kind of conflate all the different touching. You know, the tickling was okay, you know, the rough housing was okay, but then their genitals are touched and they at that point may not even kind of be able to distinguish it from the tickle game. Sexting is another phenomenon that parents have to cope with now, um, which is apparently very common among, you know, preteen and teens.
So it's, it's, and again, because of the internet and the consequences of something being on there that might never be able to be removed, and so somebody has to live with the fear that someone might see that picture of them. And every time they see it, it's like that person is re-victimized. So it's even more important to have this kind of prevention education. And I do like the fact that the New York statute talks about sexual abuse, but it also talks about child sexual exploitation. Um, and I think that is a really important element to include.
Simon: Adding that element. And there is another element, I think, of sex trafficking prevention education, and that's mentioned in Jenna's Law. Um, from what I've seen, the kind of the sex trafficking prevention is like a, a slight difference from Erin’s Law, but otherwise they kind of seem similar in most aspects. Is that your understanding of, of Jenna's Law in New York?
Judith: Well, my understanding, and I could be mistaken, but my understanding of Jenna's Law in New York is that it got folded into Erin's Law, and that Erin’s Law talks about child sexual exploitation and prevention education prevention for child's sexual exploitation, as well as child's sexual abuse. So I think that Jenna's Law was folded into Erin's Law. That's my understanding. And you,
Simon: So, yeah, so they were kind of, it seems they were both roped into the same statute. Is there any real, you know, relationship? Do they, do they interact in any way or do they kind of serve the same purpose?
Judith: I think if the curriculum was, um, robust and included internet safety, um, and education about sex trafficking, sexting, and how children can be exploited online as well as sexual abuse at the, you know, actual sexual abuse by people, um, in person as opposed to, you know, remote. I mean, I think as long as it's a robust curriculum that's evidence based, and it includes the other elements that we talked about in terms of age range and mandating that teachers and parents, um, get this education as well, um, then I think it's fine. I mean, I think to some extent, if you have too many laws that are saying similar things, um, people can get very confused. So I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that the child's sexual exploitation prevention got included in Erin's Law, but the law still has the weaknesses that we talked about earlier.
Simon: So in that kind of overlap, um, you mentioned previously to me that New York state doesn't have any mandatory teen dating violence prevention, uh, curriculum law for public schools, and that makes us an outlier.
Judith: It does.
Simon: Do, are there other states that have, you know, is, is that a, an area of the statute that's incorporated into Erin’s Law in other states?
Judith: No. The teen dating violence prevention statutes, I think preceded Erin’s Law in many states. And I believe over half of states in the United, in the US have mandatory teen dating violence prevention curriculum in their, in their public schools. Um, but New York doesn't, and the law has been introduced many times, but it's never passed. Um, I do think that there are definitely elements of similarity between, you know, Erin’s Law, Jenna's Law, and a teen dating violence curriculum. But there's also issues, I think, that are very specific to teen dating violence that deserve to be taught on their own. Um, given the prevalence statistics that I talked about before, um, I think they're even higher when you look at teen dating violence, uh, prevalence statistics.
So these are, these are very, very important types of subjects for young people to be exposed to and to understand so that they can make healthy choices. Um, and so that they're not saddled with trauma, say, from being in an unhealthy teen dating violence relationship. And also, I think there are characteristics of a teen dating violence relationship that are fairly specific to that sort of teenage, um, those teenage years. So sex torsion has become a, a huge problem, and revenge pornography, and these things are happening to young people. They're happening to 15, 16, 17 year olds. So you really don't want to leave them out of the equation here.
Simon: So in the next, you know, three to three to five years, obviously, ideally you want Erin’s Law, you know, properly enacted to its full capacity, and you want a mandatory teen dating violence curriculum to overlap and happen at the same time. But as far as, you know, progress goes and, and going step by step, do you foresee, like, you know, so right now, you know, Erin’s Law only applies to K through eight. Maybe the first step is making teen dating violence curriculum mandatory so there's something for grades eight to 12, or how do you see this kind of playing out with the legislation?
Judith: I think I would prefer to see the curriculum, both curriculum in K through 12. And you'd need, I mean, there are people who specialize in, um, this sort of, uh, prevention education and who have a lot of training and expertise in these different types of issues. So I think that there, and that maybe is where some funding issues, some funding questions could be involved, that it might be necessary for the state to hire consultants who could, um, develop a curriculum that included all of these elements.
Simon: Is there any other area of, you know, child sexual abuse or domestic violence that you, that you want to cover at the moment?
Judith: I think during the pandemic, there's been an increase, uh, of attention on, uh, children's mental health and how it's suffered so much during the pandemic (Simon: mm-hmm) Um, and so I think we need to do everything we can to normalize children, you know, to help children become more mentally healthy. And this is definitely one step we can take to achieve that.
Simon: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Judith: You're welcome.
Simon: You just heard a conversation with Judith Olin, a clinical professor in the School of Law here at the University of Buffalo. This has been The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy Podcast produced at the University at Buffalo. And you can learn more about the center on our website, buffalo.edu/baldycenter. If you would like to share your thoughts on this podcast, tweet us @Baldy Center or send us an email at BaldyCenter@buffalo.edu. I'm your host, Simon Honig. Thanks for listening.
Erin's Law in its pure form, contains five different components or requirements. The law targets all public schools in a given state to implement a prevention-oriented, child sexual abuse program for students in pre-K through grade 12, by teaching age-appropriate techniques to recognize child sexual abuse and how a child can tell a trusted adult, while also training school personnel, because you never know who a child might end up telling. [...]
Hopefully having this kind of prevention education will reduce the incidents of child sexual abuse leading to fewer victims.”
— Judith Olin
(Baldy Center Podcast, 2022)
Judith Olin joined the UB faculty in 2016 to direct the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Law Clinic. Her legal career has been dedicated to advocacy on behalf of victims of family violence. In her years as a legal services attorney, she focused on the representation of victims of domestic violence in divorce and child custody cases and initiated impact litigation leading to reform in the Buffalo Police Department’s policies in domestic violence cases.
Olin went on to become an Erie County prosecutor specializing in domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault cases. As Director of the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, Olin led a multidisciplinary team that coordinated child abuse investigations for Erie County. Olin chairs the Domestic Violence Committee of the Women’s Bar Association of Western New York and serves on The Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence and the local Rape Crisis Advisory Board.
Olin received her B.A. from New York University, and her juris doctor from the University at Buffalo School of Law.
Follow on Twitter: @UBSchoolofLaw
Simon Honig, a third-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, is the host/producer for the 2022-23 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. Honig is a Law Clerk at Block, Longo, LaMarca & Brzezinski, P.C., an Associate at the Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, a Student Ambassador, and the Social Media Coordinator for the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He earned his Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Marketing at SUNY Geneseo. Honig’s career interests lay at the crossroads between sports law and intellectual property law.
Professor, UB School of Law; Director, The Baldy Center
Associate Director, The Baldy Center