When Frank J. Mrvan, the North Township Trustee, began speaking to a crowd of 300 people early Saturday morning, he had something planned that would hopefully strike a chord with everyone in attendance.
Before the start of the No More Secrets symposium, a presentation dissecting the sexual abuse of children in Lake County, Mrvan and his team asked a total of 56 people if they could stand up when instructed to. When his speech started and the 56 men and women stood up, Mrvan revealed why.
“We talked to 9,000 children around North Township in the past week,” Mrvan explained. “The 56 men and women who are standing right now represent the 56 children who came forward in the last week with their stories of sexual abuse.”
According to a recently published editorial, Indiana has the second highest rate of child sexual abuse in the country, with Lake County having the highest rate in all of Indiana. When Mrvan read the report, he knew something had to be done to protect the youths of Lake County and Indiana.
“All of this started with that editorial report,” Mrvan explained. “It prompted me to take action and to take up the cause.”
A team was formed to start a campaign addressing the rampant abuse in Lake County, which quickly gained support from the Department of Justice, US District Attorney David Capp, and from advocate groups like Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, Regional Mental Health Center, Fair Haven, and the Department of Child Services.
With this new-found support, the next step was the most important one: education.
“We went to 13 schools in North Township and spoke to 9,000 children about sexual abuse and what to look out for,” Mrvan said. “We discussed the signs of predator behavior, the dangers of the internet and the importance of speaking up.”
Of the 9,000 children the team spoke to in the past week, 56 came forward with their stories of sexual abuse. Advocates and survivors of child sexual abuse opened their arms to the children, reassuring them that there were people to talk to who will listen to and protect them.
“The advocates and survivors have been so vital to all of this,” Mrvan said. “When a survivor talks to a victim and says, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ that person is much more willing to come forward.”
The team saw success in the steps they were taking to educate children in Lake County. Children came forward with their stories, leaving them more hopeful than they were before. Education is key in situations like this, but extending a caring hand to reassure victims there is someone there to listen.
“Many times, children who have been victims of child sexual abuse have not had the best interactions with adults,” said Amy Lopez, Chief Administrative Officer at Regional Mental Health Center. “We wanted to get the word out that there are adults out there who devote their lives to listening and helping in these situations.”
Education for children is vital, but it does not stop with them. With 300 adults in attendence at the No More Secrets symposium, the education continued with a new audience.
Along with Mrvan, acting US Attorney Clifford Johnson, the Honorable Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, and many others spoke about the importance of education in not only children, but parents and adults as well.
“Silence is a predator’s best friend,” Mrvan said. “But education is their worst enemy.”
While the campaign’s efforts to educate the youth of Lake County have been successful, the long term is goal is to make the subject mandatory to be taught in all schools. Senate Bill 355, or Erin’s Law, has been passed in 28 states around the country. With a 49-0 Senate vote, Indiana could be the next state that requires all schools to hold a one hour assembly every year about sexual abuse.
“It moves me,” said Melissa Rodriguez of Michigan City. “Children are our future, and it’s great to know that there are people who are taking the right steps in making sure they are protected.”