By Katrina Tilbury
Capital News Service
Virginia is taking a step toward teaching children how to recognize and prevent child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill to include age-appropriate instruction in those areas in the state's family life education curriculum.
Current law already requires age-appropriate education on preventing dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and sexual violence, but child advocates like Patty Hall, the director of community engagement and volunteer services at Hanover Safe Place, have pushed for stronger measures.
"The work that I do with the kids shows that they don't know often and understand the concept of being able to say no if somebody is touching them or doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Whether it is by a family member, or a friend or a dating partner, many of them do not understand these concepts," said Hall, who does prevention education with children of all ages in Hanover County.
On Thursday, Northam signed SB 101, which was sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and incorporates proposals by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, and other legislators. Wexton is an advocate for Erin's Law, a national movement urging states to implement prevention-oriented child sexual abuse programs.
LaTonsha Pridgen, founder of the advocacy group Stomp Out the Silence, also supports Erin's Law. Pridgen said she was sexually abused from the ages of 8 to 13. Her experience inspired her to start S.O.S., a nonprofit dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse through awareness and legislation.
"I know firsthand what it means to be a child and not understand that adults can do you harm - not even know that I could go to my teachers or to another adult outside of my home to report this," Pridgen said. "So I wholeheartedly support educating our children and giving them the information they need to prevent child sex abuse."
The final version of SB 101 will create guidelines on age-appropriate programs on the prevention, recognition and awareness of child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, but it does not require schools to implement such programs. Still, advocates say it's a step in the right direction.
"The law gets us one step closer to #ErinsLaw in Virginia," Wexton stated on her Facebook page after SB 101 passed the House on March 7.
Besides adding child abuse prevention programs, SB 101 clarifies that sexual harassment by digital means will be included in the existing curriculum.
The bill takes effect July 1.