116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - As Penn State struggles to come to terms with its chilling tale of a coach accused of molesting children and of failed safeguards, Iowa is focusing its attention on prevention by improving laws and school policies.
The effort in Iowa was urged by an Ames woman who suffered childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath without the help she felt she needed.
Last year, Nikki Russell, 28, uncovered repressed childhood memories of being sexually abused by a family member.
“I had never understood what was making me so sad, so hopeless, making me not want to live at times,” said Russell, who for the past 10 years has suffered from panic attacks, depression and bulimia.
“All that time, I was keeping something from myself,” said Russell. “It was bittersweet to know an answer.”
Russell began visiting counselors in third grade to seek help.
Looking back, she is surprised that no one asked if she'd been abused.
Russell told her story to Iowa legislators, who last session authorized a task force to recommend school and state policies aimed at preventing child sexual abuse.
Task force member Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said one of the task force's goals, creating a sexual abuse curriculum for schools, will be groundbreaking for Iowa.
“In a school setting, we need to make sure children can communicate what's happening to them,” Hogg said.
Russell thinks the curriculum will help shatter the environment in which sexual predators thrive.
“As awful as it is to talk about - to say the words ‘sexual abuse' - these children have lived it,” Russell said. “All we have to do is make them comfortable enough to talk about it.”
Russell was inspired to contact legislators after seeing an episode of “Oprah” featuring an Illinois woman, Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused as a child. Merryn proposed a bill to the Illinois Legislature which focused on prevention and was signed into law as Erin's Law.
Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, was among those who supported adopting a version of Erin's Law in Iowa.
“Sometimes kids feel trapped because it's an authority figure in their eyes,” said Schoenjahn. “We're looking at who has contact with our kids, whether its day-care workers, coaches, or nurses.”
Iowa's law originally mirrored Illinois' in allowing schools to create their own abuse prevention curriculum. Legislators amended the bill to create a model policy for schools when some schools saw it as an unfunded mandate.
Stephen Scott, director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa and head of the task force, said the amendment will promote consistency.
“Illinois will have random different policies in its schools,” Scott said. “I think it (the model policy) makes it more likely school districts will adopt the policy.”
Focus on prevention
Scott said the focus on prevention is a “significant refocusing” for Iowa. After 10-year-old Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids was raped and murdered by a family acquaintance in 2005, Iowa toughened its laws against sex offenders by extending criminal sentences.
Hogg said though he supported these laws, they're not effective prevention. “Criminal sentences don't have the deterrent effect under these circumstance,” said Hogg.
The task forces recommendations, due Jan. 16, will largely be informed by existing prevention programs. There are five child protection centers in the state that treat abused children identified by the police or the Department of Human Services. The centers in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Sioux City, Muscatine, and Cedar Falls often have outreach programs to help educate children.
St. Luke's Child Protection Center in Cedar Rapids has one such program called SafeTouch. Staff members travel to schools in surrounding counties each year to teach kids about how to avoid sexual abuse.
Susan Tesdahl, director of the center, said the program focuses on letting kids know they can tell anyone “no” when it comes to their body.
“These programs need to be reinforced and repeated to be effective,” said Scott, the task force chairman. “Current education efforts are spread too thinly.”
Besides the curriculum, the task force also will recommend policies to help adults identify kids who are in danger.
Russell said she would have liked to participate in programs like SafeTouch, but also to interact with adults who understood what she was going through.
“It's really important not to just send the message to kids, but to counselors and teachers to look for warning signs,” said Russell.