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Quick adoption in 34 states of Erin’s Law to prevent child abuse shows power of one individual to make policy

Sanghee Park, Indiana University and Joel Vallett, Southern Utah University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Policymaking, a process by which governments make decisions about how to address social issues, is shaped by various factors, such as the political climate, socioeconomic conditions and cultural and historical backgrounds.

Some factors are obvious, others not. Often, policy is made by groups of people working together – advocates, regular citizens, lobbyists, lawmakers.

Less often, there’s a single person who emerges as the key figure in making new policy.

One of those people is Erin Merryn, a mother and social worker originally from the Chicago suburbs who endured abuse as a child. Her efforts as an adult ultimately resulted in 38 states passing legislation named Erin’s Law that aims to prevent child abuse through education of children in schools.

As scholars who study how public policy is made and implemented, we sought to answer questions raised by the adoption of this new policy, in light of the advocacy of one woman. Why did some states adopt Erin’s Law but not others? How do different state legislatures respond to interactions with what public policy scholars call a “policy entrepreneur” like Erin Merryn?

Erin’s Law, by and large, requires the teaching of prevention classes on child sexual abuse and exploitation to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, as the New York state law, for example, now mandates.

 

Child abuse in the United States became a major public concern after the publication of “The Battered-Child Syndrome” in 1962. The book significantly raised social awareness of child abuse and highlighted the crucial roles that social workers, physicians and educators play in identifying and protecting children at risk.

However, meaningful state-level actions to address the problem were limited until Erin’s Law was enacted. Prior to Erin’s Law, much of the legislative response was limited to mandatory reporting of child abuse after it had occurred, which did little to prevent or detect abuse.

Erin’s Law was different – it aimed to prevent abuse before it starts through education, which is a proactive approach, rather than a reactive approach that focuses on abuse that has likely already happened.

In explaining how policies are adopted by government, political scientist John W. Kingdon emphasized the pivotal role of policy entrepreneurs like Merryn in pushing for a solution or drawing attention to specific policy problems. Kingdon wrote in 1984 that policy entrepreneurs are “advocates who are willing to invest their resources — time, energy, reputation, money — to promote a position in return for anticipated future gain in the form of material, purposive or solidary benefits.”

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