Law calls for focus on child abuse prevention

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lampert
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb conducted a ceremonial signing of a child abuse prevention education bill Tuesday.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Tammy Lampert made her last trip to Indianapolis on Tuesday for a ceremonial signing of a child abuse prevention education bill she helped establish.

Over the last year, Lampert, director of Southwest Indiana Child Advocacy Center Coalition, has traveled to Indianapolis several times to testify before Indiana Senate and House committees on behalf of the bill — Senate Bill 355 — which requires that age-appropriate child abuse prevention education be taught annually in all Indiana schools. It’s similar to Jenna’s Law, a Texas law that passed after Jenna Quinn told the story of her years-long abuse by a close family friend. Quinn now travels the country sharing her story with kids and adults nationwide. She visited Dubois County in April 2016.

The idea for Senate Bill 355 came from a conversation Lampert had with Quinn during her visit. The two were talking about how Indiana didn’t have a law like Jenna’s Law. The next time Lampert saw State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, the issue came up in conversation and Messmer ran with the idea. He took the issue to the study committee during the 2016 legislative session to see if such a law would be possible in Indiana, and his office authored the bill that passed unanimously this year, with several other senators and representatives adding their names.

“It seemed well overdue and well justified,” Messmer said.

Lampert stayed active in efforts to get the bill passed. As director of SWICACC, she sees children after the abuse has been done. SWICACC brings law enforcement, prosecutors, Department of Child Services staff and medical staff together to help children who are victims of abuse. Lampert often conducts forensic interviews with victims which can be used in courts and keep victims from having to relive the trauma repeatedly. Last year, Lampert conducted 325 interviews, and more than 75 of those were with children from Dubois County. So far this year, she said, SWICACC has done 100 interviews. SWICACC serves Dubois, Spencer, Crawford, Daviess, Martin, Orange and Perry counties.

“There is child abuse that happens here every day,” she said.

When the idea for Senate Bill 355 first took off, Lampert called local school officials to see if adding the prevention education was feasible. They all agreed that it could be done. She also called Sandy Runkle, director of Prevent Child Abuse Indiana. Runkle tried to get a similar bill passed several years ago, Lampert said, but was met with opposition. Runkle warned Lampert that the new bill might not pass.

“She said, ‘I don’t want you to get your hopes up. I just don’t know. People give resistance to this,” Lampert recalled.

People often resist such bills, Lampert said, because people don’t want schools giving students “the sex talk,” but that’s not what prevention education is. At younger ages, she said, it teaches kids about appropriate and inappropriate behavior and where to go to get help. As students get older, topics such as trafficking and teen dating violence are added to the curriculum.

With their bill, however, Lampert and Messmer never saw resistance. In fact, people were receptive. As the bill went through the many stages to become law, senators and representatives added their names to it. By the time it went to its final vote in the House, more than five legislators’ names appeared on the bill as either authors or sponsors, including Rep. Mike Braun, R-Jasper. That was a cool thing to see, Lampert said.

The one hiccup came when the bill needed to appear before the House Education Committee. Lampert got a call on a Saturday telling her there was a problem. The committee chair, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, wasn’t going to put the bill on the agenda. If a committee chair opts not to put a bill on their committee’s agenda, the bill dies. For Lampert and those working on the bill, having it die in committee wasn’t an option. Several people made lots of phone calls that Saturday and got the bill on the agenda.

“Once he scheduled it, I knew we were going to get it through with no problem,” Messmer said.

Lampert traveled to Indianapolis to testify during the committee’s hearing on the bill. She joined several other stakeholders, including survivors and parents of survivors, who spoke before the committee. One mother told the story of her son who told no one he’d been abused until he killed his romantic partner and himself years later. Disclosure of his abuse came in the suicide note. Survivor Isha Haley told her story and used her testimony to respond to a discussion the committee had been having earlier. Some of the representatives, Lampert said, had suggested that some of the kids with behavioral problems are just “bad apples.”

“I think it just got her,“ Lampert said. “She got up there and said, ‘How in the (heck) was I supposed to be a good student and focus and do everything they wanted and get great grades from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. when I was trying to figure out how I was going to protect myself from 4 p.m. until the next morning?’”

After the testimony, the bill passed the committee no problem and went on to unanimously pass the House, just as it had the Senate. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the law shortly after. He also granted the ceremonial signing that took place on Tuesday. Messmer said it’s difficult to get a ceremonial signing because the governor gets so many requests for them.

“We were very pleased that he saw the value of that bill and allowed our house and senate sponsors to be there.” Messmer said.

The bill takes effect July 1 and the Indiana Department of Education and local schools have until December 2018 to implement it. Both Lampert and Messmer are excited for the positive effects the bill will have. Studies have shown that prevention education increases reporting up to 95 percent, which Lampert thinks is awesome since research also shows only 5 to 10 percent of child abuse cases are actually reported.

“If this increases the number of reports, that’s awesome,” she said. “That’s more kids that are going to be able to get the treatment, the services and the counseling that they need and the safety to protect them.”




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