HAMILTON – For Tara Walker Lyons and the hundreds of other childhood sexual abuse survivors she has met over the past two years, the ink scribbled at the bottom of House Bill 298 will be much more than just a signature.
“When you’re a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you’re left with a feeling of helplessness,” said the mother of two from Hamilton. “There’s an inability to fight back when something like this happens to you and your family.
“This has offered a chance for many to believe that if you work hard enough, you can make a difference,” Lyons said. “Tara’s Law has given a lot of kids a goal.”
On Friday morning, Walker will join Rep. Ed Greef, R-Florence, and a small group of supporters – including four girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who themselves are childhood sexual abuse survivors – to watch Gov. Steve Bullock sign the legislation that will provide public schools with the framework to help educate both children and educators on how to address childhood sexual abuse.
It’s been a long time coming.
Lyons was 12 when she was sexually abused by a relative.
She didn’t really understand just how deeply that impacted her life until she found herself in treatment at the Montana Chemical Dependency Center for her abuse of alcohol.
“When I first started treatment, I felt like my life was worthless,” she remembered. “I had no hope at all.”
While she was there, Lyons discovered that she wasn’t alone.
“I found out how pervasive childhood sexual abuse is,” Lyons said. “I had always felt like I could smooth things over and get through it by drinking. I found others who were living their lives with the same pattern. I learned that I definitely was not alone.”
In July 2015, Lyons took the first courageous step to offer her story to the public. With her young daughter asleep in the next room, she sat down in front of a video camera and told her emotion-charged story.
The 11-minute video went viral and doors that Lyons never knew existed began to open.
She began telling her story to inmates as part of the Montana Department of Corrections Victim Impact Panel. She created a Facebook page called “Defending Innocence” to spread the word. And she learned about a nationally recognized program, Erin's Law, that requires childhood sexual abuse prevention be taught in schools.
Erin’s Law is named after author and activist Erin Merryn, who was molested by a family member between the ages of 11 and 13. When Lyons began her journey, Montana was one of six states in the nation where the law had yet to be considered.
As of today, there will be five.
“It’s going to be a big day,” Greef said. “Tara will be front and center for all of the victims that she represents. This bill is just a beginning. It brings this issue into the spotlight. Now, people have to recognize that it exists.”
Greef named Montana's version of Erin's Law after Tara.
In order for the bill to pass during this financially challenged legislative session, Greef was forced to amend it to remove any source of funding.
“The early estimate was $190,000 a year,'' he said. "While OPI was very much on board and committed to the program, we all recognized that if we insisted on that funding, the bill wouldn’t have gone through. I think this is a good place to start.”
Considering the fact that Greef didn’t even know Lyons existed until the second week of January, the longtime legislator is in awe of just how quickly everything came together.
“A normal track for a bill like this would be two sessions,” he said. “The story itself on how this came together is remarkable. Doors were opened, contacts were made, green lights were given by leadership and OPI came on board. Every time you turned around, another door opened.
“Whether that be happenstance or divine intervention, it would be up to you to decide,” Greef said. “Having been here four times, I’ve never had a bill take the fast track like this one.”
That journey began with an email from Lyons, who asked the legislator if he might have a few moments to visit on a Wednesday afternoon.
“I didn’t know what she wanted to talk about,” he said. “She said she was from Ravalli County. I said I would be getting out of a committee meeting at 4 p.m.”
At about five minutes to 4, Greef remembers looking up to see a young woman walk into the rear of the committee meeting room, but didn’t make the connection.
“I sent her a text saying I would be available in about five minutes,” Greef said. “She answered back that she was sitting in the committee room.''
And so as the janitors went to work to clean the room, Greef listened to Lyons’ story. When he asked her if she had a solution, she told him about Erin’s Law.
“She told me that many of these kids don’t have much of a home life,” Greef said. “Their first positive contact by an adult is often a teacher. A teacher is someone they can trust and someone who cares about them. They can talk to them.”
By now, it was nearly 5 p.m. and the Capitol was starting to empty.
“I asked her if she had the time to walk up to the third floor to see if we could find anyone to share this idea,” Greef said.
Around the first corner, they ran into Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula. After chatting with her, they took a few more steps and found Rep. Diane Sands, another Democrat from Missoula.
Then they went upstairs and found House Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, still in his office. Five minute later, Speaker of the House Austin Knutson, R-Culbertson, walked by and Lyons told her story once again.
“Here, in just a short period of time, she had met five key people,” Greef said. “Those doors were opened and it just continued on that way.”
The bill would eventually pass the House 93-5, and the Senate 46-4.
Lyons said the legislative session was an emotional rollercoaster for her, but she gathered strength from the four young girls who bravely told their own stories in an early committee hearing.
“I think, in the end, everyone could see the urgency,” Lyons said.
Friday’s signing ceremony isn’t an ending for Lyons.
“It’s really just a new beginning,” she said.
Next week, she’ll speak to inmates at the prison in Shelby. She wants to start a camp for childhood sexual abuse survivors. And Lyons wants to spearhead an effort to fund therapy for the victims of that crime.
Beyond all that, she is also planning on making the rounds to meet with Montana educators to ensure the education on the prevention of childhood sexual abuse actually takes root.
“And when the Legislature meets next time, I’ll be there to try to get funding put in place,” she said. “This is too important. This has the ability to change lives.”