Human trafficking is the world’s second largest criminal industry and a major problem in Michigan, according to state Senator John Proos.
This week he talked with the Michigan Women’s Commission about recently introduced legislation to combat the crime.
Proos’ bills give victims a chance to sue for restitution, also an opportunity for a hearing where a judge could clear convictions from their record if the offenses were committed as a result of being trafficked.
As we look forward to 2013, it is a time to reflect upon 2012. Just as with our families, when we look at our state we celebrate the milestones and ponder where to improve.
The proactive solutions we achieved in 2012 are helping to revitalize our economy and attract job creators to Michigan. We removed the barriers to competition that were hurting Southwest Michigan small businesses and again passed a state budget that provided essential services while living within our means.
As a result, our children will have more opportunities for education and employment; more freedom; and more protections from harm.
Retailers and pharmacies are now consulting an online tracking system before selling products containing pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make methamphetamine. The effect was that millions of dollars of meth production was blocked while families were still able to get needed cold medications.
To ensure that the health of young athletes is always the top priority, my concussion initiative was signed. It sets guidelines on when an injured child can return to play and creates an awareness program to help train and educate coaches, parents and athletes. We also enacted “Erin’s Law” to help prevent child sexual abuse by ensuring children have age-appropriate education to recognize and talk about abuse.
We have accomplished much in the past two years to transform and reenergize Michigan, but more remains to be done. I will continue to listen to the people about the challenges we face and learn about innovative ideas to improve our state. Together I am positive that we can build upon the achievements of 2012 and make 2013 a year of greater prosperity and opportunity.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, where a child can learn, play and enjoy life.
Unfortunately, many of our children have this innocence stolen. It is estimated that one in four girls and one of every seven boys are sexually abused by age 18. In more than 90-percent of cases, their abuser is someone they know.
To help prevent sexual abuse of children, I have introduced “Erin’s Law” in Michigan.
The bipartisan legislation is named after Erin Merryn, an abuse survivor from Illinois, whose advocacy led to the passage of a similar law in her home state in 2011 and three other states since.
After going public about her abuse by a family member, Merryn made it her mission to ensure that no other child has to endure what she did.
Merryn shared her experience this week with lawmakers and spoke of the need to help protect children from sexual abuse through education, encouraging them to speak up and ensuring parents and school personnel have the training needed to spot warning signs and report incidents.
The need for education and training became even clearer with last week’s report on the child abuse scandal at Penn State University. One thing to learn from the scathing report is that children, parents and even adults in positions of power often do not know what warning signs to look for or what to do if they are abused or suspect abuse.
As a father, I thank Erin for her bravery and her tireless leadership in support of abuse survivors.
I look forward to continuing to work with her to help Michigan children get the education and support they need to identify abuse and get help.
The Michigan Senate has passed a package of bills that would make it the fifth state in the country to enact “Erin’s Law,” if the House and Governor go along. The laws are designed to prevent the sexual abuse of children.
During a morning hearing, legislators heard from Erin Merryn, the namesake of the law. Merryn, who was abused as a child, talked about she feared she would get into trouble if she reported the abuse.
The law would require school programs that teach children to come forward in such situatins. She says that she is on a mission to make sure no other child has their voice silenced and innocence stolen the way hers was.
Erin’s Law also calls for the creation of a onetime task force on the prevention of sexual abuse of children. Similar laws have been enacted in Maine, Indiana and Missouri, and legislation has been introduced in several other states, including Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania.
The package now heads to the House. With only a few sessions scheduled for this summer, it’s not clear when it would be taken up.
State Sen. John Proos on Wednesday introduced legislation known as “Erin’s Law” to help prevent the sexual abuse of children in Michigan.
Senate Bills 1112-1114 would require school boards to put in place policies addressing child sexual abuse. The bills would also create a one-time Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, made up of legislators, state officials and experts to make recommendations on changes to Michigan laws.
“My legislation is about protecting Michigan children and preserving the innocence of childhood,” said Proos, R-St. Joseph, in a press release.
However, he added, one of every four girls and one in seven boys suffer sexual abuse by the time they’re 18, and they know their abuser in more than 90 percent of the cases.
The bipartisan measures are named “Erin’s Law” after Erin Merryn, a sexual abuse survivor from Illinois, whose advocacy in her home state led to the passage of a similar law there in 2011.
After going public about abuse by a family member, Merryn made it her mission to try to ensure that children have the age-appropriate education to recognize and talk about sexual abuse.
“As a child I was educated in school on tornado drills, bus drills, fire drills, stranger danger and drugs, but when I was sexually abused I listened to the only message I was being given – and that came from my abusers to stay silent,” said Merryn. She said education is the best way to solve the problem.
“I believe it is critical we educate kids that they have the right to say ‘no’ and that this is never their fault,” said Jamie Rossow, director of Berrien County Council on Children.
If the bills are enacted, Michigan would join Illinois, Indiana and Missouri in enacting Erin’s Law. Similar legislation has also been introduced in New York, Minnesota, New Mexico, Maine, Iowa and Massachusetts, according to Proos’ office.
Under the bills, schools could adopt age-appropriate curriculum, train school personnel on child sexual abuse and adopt policies to tell parents about the warning signs of abuse.
Proos’ office said children are now taught to beware “stranger danger,” but not to identify abuse, especially on the part of someone they know.
Parents would be made aware of the curriculum and be able to “opt out” if they did not want their child involved.
The sponsors of the companion measures in the package are state Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, and state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.
That’s what state Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, told Cass County’s Candelight Vigil sponsored Thursday night by Domestic and Sexual Abuse Services (DASAS) at ACTION Ministry Center.
“Broken Wing” may be used for specific ministries, said the Rev. John Kasper, pastor of First United Methodist Church.
The angel on a pedestal in front of the former Groner Funeral Home at 301 Main St. “recognizes we are here as broken people ourselves to minister to broken people. This vigil is very appropriate as one of our very first activities. That angel is in a shop being repaired, but not quite, so it’s broken instead of broken off.”
DASAS serves Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties’ survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their families, offering free, confidential support to people such as Tara, who provided the perspective of someone who escaped an abusive marriage and the drugs and alcohol the mother of three turned to as a coping mechanism to deaden her pain.
Mary Lynn Falbe, DASAS executive director, said, “If we are to reduce domestic violence, we must continue to raise awareness and understanding of the problem. We need to educate our friends, families, churches, communities and schools about prevention. That’s a hard task because domestic violence is a personal, intimate topic that is not discussed at social gatherings or even at church because many still view domestic violence as a ‘dirty little secret.’ ”
“To first understand what the challenges are,” Proos said from the steps of ACTION (All Churches Together in One Network), “you have to understand the depth of the challenge itself. You can’t answer the question if you don’t first understand what you’re trying to face. Each of you bring your own perspective, which we don’t dismiss, but honor and understand that it is yours for whatever reason that brings you here tonight to hold a candle in remembrance.”
Proos said more than 103,000 cases of domestic violence affected Michigan families just in 2009.
Five hundred and 11 of those occurred in Cass County.
“While statistics are easy to look at, each of those we recite has a name, a face, a family and an impact on our community, which isn’t as safe. A community which isn’t as prosperous, a community which can’t go to work comfortably and a community which has children who have seen something that nobody should ever seen,” Proos said. “All of those sorts of things cannot be summed up in statistics, but in each of those stories” whose names fill five pages since 1971, but which haven’t been added to since February 2008.
“Domestic violence, sadly, is the leading cause of injury of women between ages 15 and 44 in the United States,” said Proos, who is married and the father of three children.
He was elected to the Michigan House in November 2004.
“Think about that for a moment. Grasp what that human toll is. A human toll that drives us here today to remember the loss and to embrace the survivors. It is because there are survivors that we stand here today to talk about ways to fix our community through action networks, through remembrances and through each and every one of us making it a personal mission in our lives to make a difference so that the very long sheet of names listed as victims, and the many, many folks behind them who face the pain of loss and the pain of a future without those loved ones.”
Proos asked, “What difference does one pebble make in the ocean?”
He answered, “One pebble makes a ripple that goes on forever and impacts that ocean. Law enforcement responds to it daily, then they have to go home to their own families having seen and heard and witnessed the pain. Thank them and honor them for taking that home with them every day.”
Instead of regarding the candlelight vigil solely as a memorial to remember victims and to feel sad, the lawmaker suggested, “Take it as a challenge to make a difference in our community. By having a remembrance like this, we find ways to let somebody else know. Grow tonight’s experience by one and we’ll have 150 to 200 new people aware of this challenge and aware of the signs of domestic abuse. Aware to know that not to confront is to condone. If you’re not aware of the signs and you don’t confront the situation, even if you can’t do it yourself, talk to someone who might have the capacity. But to look the other way is to condone the actions you know are happening. This remembrance is a call to arms to make domestic violence known in our community and then, with our help, unknown in our community. A call to the arms that wrap around people in loving care. Arms that stand together arm in arm to make a difference. It only happens if we as members of this community seek to do so. On behalf of my very good friends, state Rep. Sharon Tyler (of Niles), Sen. Ron Jelinek (of Three Oaks) and Rep. Matt Lori (of Constantine), it’s my great pleasure to spend this evening with you, remembering and seeking to make a difference.”
“Purple is the color of remembrance,” the 79th District (northern Berrien County) lawmaker said of programs bearing the theme, “Mourn. Celebrate. Connect,” and “burgundy is the color of the Harley Davidson (motorcycle) which went by” on the Main Street boulevard, sometimes drowning out speakers’ comments with the assistance of a woman who chatted on her cell phone throughout the somber service to the point several urged Undersheriff Rick Behnke to arrest her.
About 50 people attended the vigil, plus the members of Jeff Robinson’s Union High School choir.
Tara fell “into what I thought was love” at 15 with her husband. “I was young and naive and thought he would love and protect me. I tried my hardest to please him and make him happy, but I never could. I even tried to stand up for myself, but that never worked, either. He wouldn’t listen, so discussions ended in physical violence. I was beaten, cussed at and degraded, even in front of others, and forced to have sex. I hated my life and wanted to die” except for their three children.
“I wondered what was wrong with me,” she said. “Why couldn’t I make this man love me like he said he does? I felt worthless and hopeless. Who else would want me or love me? I sank into a horrible depression, my anxiety out of control. My anxiety rubbed off on my children — especially when it was time for their father to come home. Everybody tried to be perfect to not upset him, but it didn’t matter because nothing we did was ever good enough and it didn’t take much to set him off.”
Tara turned to drugs and alcohol.
“They made it easier for me to endure the physical, emotional and sexual abuse when I was numb,” she recalled. “After our third child was born, I knew something had to change. I already worked as a certified nursing assistant,” so she enrolled in the nursing program at Southwestern Michigan College.
“My husband didn’t care if I went to school, as long as I worked fulltime and didn’t expect him to babysit our children. Even though I was still using, I felt in control,” she said. “My family jumped on that glimmer of hope, pleading and urging me to leave my husband. They promised to help me, so I did it. I left him. A couple of weeks later, my estranged husband tried to kill me.
“I had agreed to talk to him because we were going to meet up with some friends. I agreed to ride with him back to my car. He then questioned me as to why I wanted a divorce all of a sudden. I tried to explain that this wasn’t sudden, but had been going on for years. He drove to a field, pulled me out of the truck by my feet and proceeded to choke me until I passed out. When I came to, his hands were still around my neck. He asked me if I realized how easily he could snap my neck and nobody would know. He told me our children didn’t need a slut for a mother. I begged him and pleaded for my life and promised to come home, to quit work and school and do whatever he wanted. He started crying and telling me how much he loved me. It was the most bizarre and terrifying moment of my life.”
DASAS offered her services, which she refused, but she didn’t return home.
She felt, “I didn’t need help now, I had escaped.”
But Tara “plunged deeper into my drug and alcohol addiction and into a new relationship with a man whose addictions were just as bad as mine. I even moved him into my home with my children. Even now, I felt in control without realizing how out of control my life had become. It wasn’t long until we were arrested for drug possession and my children were taken away and placed in foster care. I lost my home and job and could not return to the nursing program, but I now realize it probably saved my life, so I praise the Lord every day for opening my eyes to the horror that was my life.”
This time she “grabbed and received every service the Department of Human Services offered and I plunged into my recovery like I plunged into my addictions. I started attending one-on-one counseling. I learned that no matter how hard I tried” to satisfy her abuser, she never could because “it’s his sickness and I didn’t cause it and I can’t fix it. It’s about power and control.
“I learned to build myself back up and gain back confidence and self-esteem. I’ve learned to set boundaries and to be assertive for my needs and the needs of my children and to recognize the warning signs of abusers. I’ve become involved in my church” and found employment with a mental health agency as a peer support specialist helping others who suffer from domestic violence. She serves on the agency’s board of directors and attends the Cass County Task Force for Family Violence.
“I’ve built a strong network around myself of people who help keep me accountable for my choices,” Tara said. “I’m very aware that even though I have separated myself from my abuser and that lifestyle, there are still ways he may and can control me. The biggest way is my children and the court system, where he is still able to exert his power. But I also know I’m no longer a helpless victim, but a strong, intelligent woman. I have my own power and I won’t back down. I have rights and I will continue to fight for what I believe in. I just pray that whoever is struggling and is in a hopeless situation, don’t give up. There are so many people out here who want to reach out and help you. Seek those people out. You don’t have to be a victim. Like me and so many other women, you can be a survivor, too.”