By Liz Hume
On September 22, 2015, Michael Gardner pleaded guilty to a total of five charges related to sexual molestation of young girls. After the sentencing, the survivor’s families released 60 letters written from prominent and elected officials from our community to the judge asking for leniency in his sentence. Gardner pleading guilty and the release of these letters, is what spurred a community member to start a GoFundMe site to support the girls with a red sign campaign stating “We Support the Girls.”
We Support the Girls, or WSTG, was an idea approved by the girls as way for the community to show their support for them. While the red signs may be a painful reminder to a few in the community who support Gardner, they are a powerful message to the girls that we support them and we will work to make sure that this does not happen in our community again. These signs are empowering not only to them but also for many in this community who are child sexual abuse survivors but never got justice or have been unable to tell their story. The signs are also an important reminder to the community that we need to do a lot more work to ensure that all of our children are safe from sexual predators.
The survivors are determined to forge something good out of this horrific crime with the goal of helping other child victims in the community. WSTG supports victims and empowers survivors. Its mission is to raise child sexual abuse awareness by encouraging parents to talk with their children and victims and their parents to report. It promotes access to educational materials and emphasizes how vital it is for communities to create a climate free from stigma. WSTG is not a political organization and does not endorse any local or national candidate. The advisory board is made up of community members from Arlington, Falls Church City and Fairfax.
WSTG does promote education and advocates for legislation crucial to protecting children from sexual abuse by ensuring that children, their parents and guardians, and their educators can recognize the signs of abuse and know how to respond. Child sexual abuse is a serious problem nationwide. An estimated one in 10 children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18, yet only about one third of the cases are ever reported. The impacts are profound: the trauma of sexual abuse can increase the chances that a child drops out of school, experiences mental and physical health issues, or abuses drugs or alcohol at an early age.
WSTG supports Bill 828 sponsored by Virginia State Senator Jennifer Wexton. This bill known as Erin’s Law will help address this threat to the safety of children through education. It directs public schools to implement age-appropriate programs for students from pre-K through 12th grade to recognize sexual abuse and tell a trusted adult. It also requires schools to train all personnel as well as parents and guardians to recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse and provides resources to assist them in helping victims. Erin’s Law is vital to empowering children and those closest to them to put a stop to abuse.
Although it has been passed in 28 states, Virginia is not one of them. WSTG encourages everyone to educate themselves about the bill and contact their delegate and request support for this legislation.
On Saturday, February 11 from 2–4 p.m., WSTG will be hosting a community event at the Washington and Lee High School Auditorium 1301 North Stafford Street in Arlington. The goal of the event is to increase community involvement in the prevention of child sexual abuse by encouraging community members to become engaged, learn how to be a part of stopping child sexual abuse in Virginia and participate in a movement to protect all girls and boys in our state from child sexual abuse.
Additionally, we hope to energize the community to advocate for the adoption of Erin’s Law. We encourage everyone to attend and find out what members of the community can do to support victims and empower survivors of sexual abuse. Peggy Fox (Channel 9 news) will moderate and special guests include Congressman Don Beyer and Dr. Lyndon Haviland, board member of Darkness To Light.
To request a red We Support The Girls sign, contact Jenni at [email protected]
Further information can be found on the web site www.wesupportthegirls.org.
Liz Hume is a member of the We Support the Girls advisory board.