Tara Walker Lyons had no idea what to expect when she took the stage at Poplar High School a few weeks back.
She had traveled across the state to talk to students about a subject that no one wants to consider.
“I thought maybe I would look out and see all these little lights as they checked out their cell phones,” the Hamilton mother said.
Instead, as she told her story of being sexually abused at the age of 6 and the challenges she has faced since then, Lyons said that all eyes in the room were fixed on her.
She knew that they felt and understood her pain.
Poplar High School Principal Dwain Haggard wrote Lyons a letter of recommendation after that day.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen my students so transfixed as Ms. Lyons told of her experiences and struggles as a child abuse survivor,” Haggard wrote.
When her talk came to an end, Haggard said several students asked to speak to counselors. One even stepped forward before the presentation was done.
“Ms. Lyons’ story was full of pain and passion and touched us all to our very core,” Haggard wrote. “Her journey is a lonely journey that so many kids are experiencing and it’s a journey that Ms. Lyons has had the courage to share for the good of others.”
Haggard encouraged other school leaders to provide her a chance to speak in their communities.
“Many of our children are at risk in the very place they should feel the safest, their homes,” Haggard wrote. “Worst of all, they have no idea how to deal with the abuse. Ms. Lyons’ message provides the guidance and insight to help our kids deal with this worst of crimes.”
Lyons believes there is only one way to stop this crime against children: “We have to find a way to bring it into the light. We have to provide children with a chance to make it stop.”
On Tuesday, Lyons will go to Helena in hopes of finding a champion for that cause.
She will spend the day meeting with state legislators with the hope of convincing at least one to carry a bill that Lyons is certain will change the lives of children destined to cross paths with sexual predators.
In her hand, she’ll carry a copy of Erin’s Law.
Named for a childhood sexual assault survivor – author, speaker and activist Erin Merryn – the law requires all public schools to implement a prevention-orientated child sexual abuse program that teaches kids that they’re not the ones who are doing something wrong.
The grades K-12 curriculum teaches age-appropriate techniques that help children recognize sexual abuse and encourages them to reach out to a trusted adult to make it stop.
Montana is one of six states in the country that doesn’t have something like Erin’s Law in place to protect its children from sexual abuse.
There are 26 states that have already implemented the law. Another 17 are working through the process.
Sarah Grande of Rocker believes that if the program had been implemented in Montana, her daughter may have been spared the abuse she suffered at the hands of a Hamilton man.
“That’s not something that you think is going to happen to your child,” Grande said. “My daughter told me later that the schools teach you seven ways of saying no to drugs. Why don’t they teach how to get help when this happens to you?
“She told me if I would have known, I would have talked to someone the first time it happened,” Grande said. “Children don’t know what to do. They have zero life experience in trying to deal with a situation like that.”
The girl’s abuser, Justin Gale Walker of Hamilton, was sentenced to prison in November 2015.
Grande’s daughter, Elianah, turned 11 this past November.
She – like Lyons – has decided that she won’t be silent about what happened to her. If she gets the chance, Grande said her daughter will stand right alongside Lyons when it comes time to testify in favor of Erin’s Law.
Grande said the choice of stepping forward was entirely her daughter’s.
“I would have stopped when he went to jail,” she said. “I thought at that point, it was pretty much done for us. We were all emotionally exhausted.”
But Elianah learned about Lyons’ efforts to bring this crime out of the shadows.
“She saw her standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” Grande said. “She wanted to be part of that.”
She has already spoken before a legislative committee. Her efforts have earned her an invitation to an ambassador leadership program that will be held in July at Harvard.
“She wants to become a judge,” Grande said. “There is something in her that I believe will change a lot of things in this world … Elianah means ‘Gift from God.’ ”
Grande saw the impact that Elianah’s testimony had on the legislative committee.
“When you’re an adult, that innocence of childhood is gone,” Grande said. “People have a hard time seeing you as a child. Elianah knows that she can make a difference if given the chance. She’s told me that if I ever tell anyone no, that she was going to be upset with me. She wants that choice to be hers.”
Lyons hopes that she and Elianah will be given the chance to tell to their stories to the Legislature while talking about the need for Erin’s Law.
Kierstin Schmitt of Emma’s House Children’s Advocacy Center knows the chances for children to fully recover from the trauma caused by sexual abuse can be hastened by early disclosures.
“We feel like there are a lot of children who come here who express the feeling that if someone had talked to them, they would have disclosed what happened to them sooner,” Schmitt said. “They would have been able to get help sooner.”
There is science that shows that childhood experiences of abuse or neglect can lead to very serious health and emotional impacts later in a person’s life.
“Childhood sexual abuse has been a taboo subject for a very long time,” Schmitt said. “It’s not spoken about in public very often. If we can just open up that dialogue and get these kids some help early on, there’s a better chance of recovery and breaking this cycle.”
Lyons has played a key role in taking the first step of breaking down those doors.
“She speaks clearly about her experience and the direct impacts that it’s had on her life,” Schmitt said. “She is passionate and poised and truly embodies the experience of a sexually abused child who has risen up to become a survivor.”
State Attorney General Tim Fox called Lyons his hero on a radio program recently.
“Sexual abuse is an atrocity that is far too common in this day and age,” Fox said, in a statement. “It’s an abhorrent crime under any circumstance, but is even worse when it involves children.
“Combating sexual abuse is a top priority for the Montana Department of Justice, and the work of individuals like Tara is an invaluable component to the larger effort of preventing kids from enduring such horrendous circumstances,” he said. “Tara should be commended for the work she does.”