MUNSTER — North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan launched a campaign last week to address child sexual abuse in Northwest Indiana.

Mrvan said the No More Secrets campaign is intended to increase awareness about the issue and promote legislation to combat it.

He hopes to create a hotline, in partnership with other organizations, to report child sexual abuse and a support group for abuse survivors.

“One act causes an enormous wave of family destruction and, more than likely, emotional and physical abuse going forward into the future that tears at the fabric of society,” Mrvan said. “If we are going to boast about bringing in new businesses and improving quality of life, this is one topic that needs to be discussed.”

Education is 'best weapon'

Partners in the No More Secrets campaign include Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, Geminus Corp., WJOB, the Regional Mental Health Center, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Indiana, the Lake County Prosecutor's Office and The Times Media Co.

Mrvan said he was inspired to create the campaign after he read a September 2015 editorial in The Times of Northwest Indiana.

The editorial focused on a report by the Global Health Communication Center at Indiana University, which found Indiana had the second-highest rate of forced sexual intercourse among high school females in the nation.

The report indicated a number of factors contributed to the state's inability to effectively address child sexual abuse, including a lack of education for students and teachers, and spotty reporting of relevant data by state and local agencies.

Sandy Runkle, director of programs for Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, said approximately 1 in 10 children in the United States experience physical sexual abuse, a crime that is often underreported due to the coercion, secrecy and shame that is inflicted on the child by the abuser.

Mrvan, U.S. District Attorney David Capp and a mental health advocate will tour high schools March 13-17 in North Township to educate students about sexual abuse and how to report incidents, among other issues. A sexual abuse survivor also will speak at the schools about her experience.

On March 18, a symposium will take place at Purdue University Northwest's Hammond campus.

Erin Merryn, a child sexual abuse survivor, will discuss her campaign to promote Erin's Law, legislation that mandates sexual abuse prevention curriculum in schools. The symposium also will feature two workshops on child sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Legislation clears committee

The campaign promotes Senate Bill 355, which would implement a version of Erin's Law in Indiana.

The law would require the Indiana Department of Education to make available by July 1, 2018, educational materials to assist schools in implementing child abuse and sexual abuse education programs in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Schools would be required to provide such instruction by Oct. 1, 2018, as well as train certain employees and volunteers how to respond and report incidents of child abuse and child sexual abuse.

Current law requires the Department of Education to make child abuse and sexual abuse information available to schools for programs in second through fifth grade, but implementing such curriculum is not required.

The bill is co-authored by Mrvan's father, state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond.

Both men testified Thursday in favor of the bill at a hearing of the state Senate Family and Children Services Committee.

The younger Mrvan told the senators he visited high schools in the five municipalities that compose North Township and only one school — Highland High — had implemented curriculum to prevent child sexual abuse. Other school officials were excited about such a program being implemented, he said. 

The issue is personal for Mrvan and his father.

“I had a sister-in-law that was abused, and turned to opiates for relief,” Frank J. Mrvan said. “And she is no longer with us.”

The committee voted unanimously to approve the bill, which will now be sent to the full Senate for a first reading.

“I'm excited about the unanimous vote,” the trustee said. “It's the first step. Education is the best weapon against a skilled predator.”

Two part-time trustee employees, Mayra Rodriguez-Alvarez and Isha Haley, assisted Mrvan in creating the campaign.

Haley shared with senators at Thursday's hearing her experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.

She said in an interview that Frank J. Mrvan's decision to promote this issue spoke to his character.

“This is not about politics,” Haley said. “This is about people, and people are hurting.”

Any child sexual abuse survivor who would like to share their story can contact Rodriguez-Alvarez at 219-932-2530, ext. 338.

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Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.