When 16-year-old Megan met Dan, she was thrilled that the 20-year-old seemed so much more mature than her boyfriend, Lance. Before long, they were dating. She recorded mixed feelings in her diary: “He’s trying to get me to come over…I love him, but he’s obsessed. I can’t break up with him…I don’t know what I can do.”
When she became pregnant with Dan’s child, Megan decided to try to make the relationship work despite Dan’s job losses, temper tantrums and threats.
Megan and her parents took care of her son Nicky, but the tug-of-war with Dan continued: “we had a huge fight…I slapped him and he took my rings. He burned all my things from Lance. He won’t break up with me and I can’t bring myself to do it,” Megan wrote in swirly script. When Nicky turned 2, she told Dan the relationship was over. Dan fatally attacked Megan, grabbed Nicky and drove off a cliff. Dan survived. Nicky did not.
A Too-Common Experience
It was an extreme and tragic example of a too-common experience. There are girls like Megan struggling to break free of oppressive relationships all over the U.S. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that an estimated one in five female high school students experience physical or sexual abuse by a dating partner. This abuse is associated with high-risk behaviors, such as early onset of sexual activity, early pregnancy, increased risk of substance abuse, unhealthy weight-control behaviors and suicide attempts.
This problem cuts across racial and economic lines. Carlene Cobb, author of Coping with An Abusive Relationship (Rosen Publishing Group, 2001), points out that lack of self-esteem and knowledge of what a healthy relationship looks like can occur no matter where a teen grows up. Cobb explains how quickly relationship rage can flare: “One girl was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend, who asked her to get him a bowl of cereal. When she refused, he picked her up and threw her through a glass coffee table.” Cobb frequently speaks to high school audiences, urging them to “tell a trusted adult” about abuse.
Despite the risk to teens involved in an abusive relationship, juvenile courts and many state laws have overlooked the special problems presented by adolescent domestic and family violence. For instance, many women’s shelters don’t take girls under 18 because they aren’t set up to provide services such as transportation to school.
In addition, shelters often will not admit women who don’t have an order of protection from a judge. But only 17 states permit minor victims of dating violence to apply for such orders on their own. In most other states, however, a parent can apply on behalf of a child.
Some shelters, such as the Anne Pierce Rogers Women’s Shelter in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, do take teens. Shelter advocate Brenda Driscoll said “we get lots of requests for shelter from girls in the upper teen years—about 17 through 20—because of relationship abuse. Many of these girls have children who stay with them.” The Anne Pierce Rogers Shelter is one of three shelters run by the Tubman Family Alliance.
A California Judge Pioneers a New Approach
In 1999, under the leadership of Judge Eugene M. Hyman, Santa Clara County in California set up a separate court to deal with juvenile domestic and family violence. The Court attempts to intervene early in troubled teen relationships, combining strict accountability with education and victim services in an effort to head off violent behavior in adulthood.
Fashion icon Liz Claiborne has taken on relationship violence in her "Love is Not Abuse" initiative. Her "Parent's Guide to Teen Dating Violence" includes these questions to jump- start a conversation with teens:
1) How are things going?
2) What are your friends' dating relationships like?
3) Have you ever seen any kind of abusive behavior between two people who are going out?
4) Why do you think someone would abuse someone they were dating?
5) Why might a person stay in an abusive relationship?
6) What makes a relationship healthy?
7) What can you do if you have a friend who is threatened-- or a friend who is abusive?
8) What kinds of messages about dating abuse and relationships do we see in the media?
9) When you think about going out—what are some behaviors that would be okay and some you'd have a problem with?
10) Where can you go to find help if you or a friend needs it?