Childhood sexual abuse survivor, educator and nationally-recognized advocate Lauren Book today completed a 1,500-mile walk across Florida and held a rally on the steps of the historic Old Capitol with the Governor, Cabinet members, legislative leaders and supporters to advocate for more funding for rape crisis centers, legislation to make it easier to prosecute sex offenders and expanded prevention education.
Book and Florida’s state attorneys are advocating for legislation that would make out-of-court statements from child victims of sexual abuse a stronger tool in trials against their alleged abusers. Book’s non-profit organization, Lauren’s Kids, also is seeking to expand Florida’s existing abuse prevention curriculum through fifth grade.
Throughout the state, Book has spread a message of hope and healing to victims of sexual abuse and has worked to educate communities about their role in abuse prevention.
“I am working to create a culture of safety. To truly end the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse, we need to stop hiding from it and start talking about it,” Book said. “We need to empower our children to make choices that keep them safer, and we need to educate adults to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and the traps predators set.”
Armed with the knowledge that 95 percent of sexual abuse is preventable with education and awareness, Book is on a mission to shine light on the dark issue of abuse in Florida. During each week of her six-week Walk in My Shoes, she highlighted a different aspect of child sexual abuse: Signs, Disclosure and Reporting; Predators: Grooming/Pedophile Tactics; Prevalence and Healing; Effects of Child Sexual Abuse; the Role of Youth-Serving Organizations; Education and Prevention. The Lauren’s Kids foundation created a series of educational web videos corresponding to each topic, featuring experts, survivors and a convicted child molester.
In addition to educating communities about the issue of child sexual abuse, Book used her statewide walk as a platform to advocate for a change in Florida law that would make an out-of-court statement from older child victims of sexual abuse a stronger tool in trials against their alleged abusers. Sometimes called a “hearsay exception,” this language is contained in HB 7031/SB 1114 and HB 1325/SB 1644, a bill focused on human trafficking.
Under current Florida law, out-of-court statements – such as transcripts of forensic interviews – made by a child victim with a physical, mental, emotional or developmental age of 11 or less may be admissible as evidence in some child sex abuse cases. State attorneys in districts across the state have joined Book to advocate for HB 7031/SB 1114 and HB 1325/SB 1644, which extend this option to children up to 16 years old.
HB 7031/SB 1114, sponsored by the Judiciary Committee and Criminal Justice Subcommittee also contains an important provision requiring courts to consider whether a defendant is required to register as a sexual offender or predator when determining whether to release him or her on bail until the first appearance in the case in order to ensure the protection of the public.
Book also is seeking to expand the state’s existing kindergarten abuse prevention curriculum to include grades one through five, incorporating such topics as bullying and Internet safety. Book, who recently received her Master of Education degree from the University of Miami, developed and distributed the existing kindergarten curriculum, Safer, Smarter Kids, at the direction of the 2011 Florida Legislature. It has since been demonstrated to increase children’s knowledge of critical personal safety information by 77 percent.
Additionally, Book is supporting the Governor’s recommendation for a $2.5 million appropriation to reduce the sometimes months-long wait for services at Florida’s rape crisis centers, allowing them to provide critical counseling and support services immediately.
The final mile of Book’s 1500-mile journey began at Governor’s Square Mall in Tallahassee, proceeded up Apalachee Parkway and finished at the historic Old Capitol steps. Book was joined by hundreds of supporters, local elected officials and state leaders, including Governor Rick Scott and Florida’s First Lady Ann Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Senate President Don Gaetz, Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins and state attorneys Catherine Vogel, Bill Cervone and Stephen Russell.
Thousands of people turned out to walk with Book since her statewide Walk in My Shoes began in Key West on March 19, including Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, state attorneys from around the state, players and coaches from the Miami Heat and Miami Dolphins, advocates, victims, children, local elected officials and celebrities.
The Walk has generated extensive media coverage across Florida and also was documented through frequent blog posts, YouTube videos and a photo gallery that generated hundreds of thousands of Web visitors and thousands of social media followers.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this year’s national theme is focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse; this month is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
Since January, Lauren’s Kids has partnered with the Florida Department of Children and Families to create and promote the “Don’t Miss the Signs” campaign, which aims to educate adults on signs of child abuse and how to make a report. As part of that campaign, a 30-minute television special about child sexual abuse prevention, Intimate Crimes, was produced and is airing statewide.
Lauren’s Kids is a non-profit organization that works to prevent abuse and help survivors heal. The organization, which has offices in Aventura, Florida and Tallahassee, Florida, was started by Lauren Book, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who endured abuse at the hands of her nanny for six years. Her organization offers a 24-hour crisis hotline, elementary school prevention curriculum, an annual 1,500-mile awareness walk, legislative advocacy and speaking engagements. For more information, visit laurenskids.org