Peggy Bennett: Children deserve nothing but the best in life

Published 9:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2017

Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

As an elementary school teacher for 33 years, youth have been my passion. Of special concern to me are children who are at-risk. These at-risk young people don’t have any control over their circumstance in life, and often need the help of a caring teacher, relative or other concerned adult to make it through difficult situations. That’s why one important issue I’m focusing on in the Legislature is our at-risk youth in Minnesota.

I have authored a bill, HF1680, called Erin’s Law. The impetus of this bill comes from a sexual assault survivor, Erin Merryn, who is working to end sexual abuse of children. Forms of this bill, which have been passed in 26 states, guide pre-K-12 public and charter schools to teach their students how to recognize sexual abuse and teaches them to speak up if being abused. The bill encourages schools to educate teachers about this issue, and help parents identify abuse warning signs in children.

Peggy Bennett

Peggy Bennett

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Schools in Minnesota are mandate weary, which is why my legislation does not add another mandate onto schools. The legislation urges schools to adopt these policies, as well directs the Department of Education to perform a one-time survey of schools to determine if and how Minnesota schools are addressing this important issue. Some schools are already doing a great job educating their students, teachers and families about child sexual abuse. However, to better protect children, I believe all schools should be doing this.

I’m also sponsoring another bill, HF987, that relates to young people in foster care. Currently, children in foster care, unless they are wards of the state, age out of the system as soon as they turn 18. We want foster children to have the most normal childhood possible, and this is not normal. Parents typically don’t just cut their kids off at age 18, and send them packing off into the world on their own. We shouldn’t do that to foster kids either. These young people need the same supports and gradual release into adulthood that a regular family would provide — and probably more.

My legislation would extend the option to return for support to all youth who age out without a permanent or reliable family, if they meet the federal eligibility guidelines. This legislation is a chance to extend a helping hand to young people who may need extra assistance before they leave foster care.

I am happy to say that the Minnesota Legislature is working to protect our children in other ways as well. Just this past week, I signed on to support two bills related to an underreported problem in Minnesota, sex trafficking. Rep. Tim Miller is leading the way on this issue, and is chief authoring both bills. The first, directly impacts youth who, through no fault of their own, are being trafficked in the sex trade. The bipartisan bill would provide $2.3 million for safe shelters and expert personnel for exploited youth, as well as new training for local law enforcement.

The second bill calls for a statewide plan to combat sex trafficking in Minnesota. It’s extremely difficult to hear the stories or the young women involved in this abhorrent trade, and I believe the state can take more steps to prevent sex trafficking, especially in our youth.

I have spoken at length to our local county social workers, foster parents, educators and other concerned residents in our area, as well as the state level, who work with young people. There are many issues that tragically affect children, including sex trafficking, sexual abuse and more. These can remain hidden and silent for years and greatly damage a child’s development. It’s my goal to help children who are helpless, and work to prevent these tragedies before they start. Children are our treasure — both now and for the future. They absolutely deserve our best!

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 27A representative.