IOWA CITY–The last time Nikki Russell hugged her grandpa, she felt disgusted. She wanted to get as far away from him as possible. His embrace triggered too many disturbing memories from her childhood.
Nikki Russell, 28, of Ames, Iowa, is a victim of child sexual abuse. For years Russell suffered from severe depression, but could not point to what caused her anxiety and suicidal thoughts. After she embraced her grandpa at her aunt’s funeral though, she began putting pieces of her childhood together.
“It was how I felt every time I hugged him,” Russell said, “Once I had that icky feeling I remembered sexual images of him changing my diaper. In a flashback it is like you are outside of your body. It is hard to describe. It just felt so wrong the ways he touched me.”
According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, there were 719 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in 2009. Russell is on a mission to help these kids, and her story is now the inspiration behind a bill in the Iowa legislature that could help prevent child sexual abuse.
Russell was compelled to share her story with Iowa legislators after she learned of an Illinois bill called Erin’s Law on an episode of Oprah.
The bill, which was recently signed into law, is named after Erin Merryn, an Illinois woman who was sexually abused as a child.
Erin’s Law allows school boards in Illinois to adopt and implement a policy that addresses child sexual abuse. It also creates a task force on the prevention of sexual abuse of children.
For seven years, Merryn has traveled the nation giving speeches about sexual abuse. In addition to Oprah, Merryn appeared on Good Morning America and the Montel Williams Show to share her story and advocate for legislation that will educate kids about sexual abuse.
Erin’s Law has sparked interest outside of Iowa. According to Merryn, individuals from Indiana, Florida, Nebraska and Missouri brought similar legislation to their state legislators.
Russell took this same route. The afternoon after she heard Merryn’s story on Oprah, Russell emailed every Iowa state legislator urging them to listen to her story and to adopt Erin’s Law in Iowa.
“After that point things progressed very quickly,” Russell said.
A few weeks after she sent the emails, Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, was ready to sponsor Senate File 10, Iowa’s version of Erin’s Law.
“In the legislature we are often focused on dollars and numbers and percents. That is not what this is about. It is about the people. That is why I invited Nikki to the capitol to tell her story,” Beall said.
The initial version of the bill was very similar to Erin’s Law. The first section authorized a school district to implement a policy addressing child sexual abuse.
The policy may have included educational components like adopting a curriculum for children in prekindergarten through the fifth grade, as well as training teachers and parents to catch warning signs of sexual abuse.
According to Beall, the second section called for establishing a working commission, or task force, to explore the issue of child sexual abuse and to propose recommendations for the state on how to handle this issue.
Mary Gannon, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said that the association opposed the bill because they believe it is a duplicate of Iowa’s educational standards, which already requires schools to teach various sexuality issues for students in grades K-12.
Additionally, Gannon said that the provision letting schools implement a sexual abuse policy could easily turn into a mandate without notice.
“In the end, we didn’t see the need for the bill,” Gannon said.
On Feb. 9 the bill was unanimously amended and voted out of the Education Committee. It is currently eligible for debate in the Senate.
The amended version, now called Senate File 204, no longer has the first section of the original bill which gave school districts the option to implement a policy addressing child sexual abuse.
Now the task force is the primary focus of the bill, according to Beall. It will still be required to research and make recommendations to the state on how to combat child sexual abuse.
Additionally, the task force will take on the responsibility of creating a model policy on how to address child sexual abuse within the school setting.
Stephen Scott, the director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, welcomes this change.
“Since a model policy will be developed for the schools,” Scott said, “It will actually be more beneficial compared to just relying on the independent school districts to create and implement a policy.”
Prevent Child Abuse Iowa is an organization that has directed the statewide Iowa Child Abuse Prevention Program since 1982. Prevent Child Abuse Iowa works within the community and offers sexual abuse prevention programs to children and parents. Iowa contracts with it to administer child abuse prevention funds for this fiscal year.
In the amended version of the bill, the organization under this contract will be required to provide staff for the task force, as well as orchestrate the organizational meeting. These responsibilities were once assigned to the Iowa Department of Education in the original bill.
According to Beall, this organization will be more involved because the Department of Education could not provide the staff or resources to take on these roles.
Representatives from other organizations like The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault and The Iowa Psychological Association will now be on the task force.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with such a broad-based group to prevent child sexual abuse and are pleased to be one step closer to having that chance,” Scott said.
The task force will submit a final report with its recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by Jan. 16, 2012.
Nikki Russell is pleased so far with the progress of the bill.
“The journey is coinciding so beautifully,” Russell said, “It has opened good emotional feelings for me. I have realized and learned things as this bill has progressed. Through this, I am able to help create a support system for these kids so they never have to search for it.”
(Anja Sivertson is a journalism major at the University of Iowa.)