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Domestic abuse experts tailor programs to teens

February 18, 2007|Bonnie Miller Rubin | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Scrapping his usual lesson for the day, a South Shore high school teacher asked his students a question: Is it ever OK to be abusive with a boyfriend or girlfriend?

A 16-year-old boy spoke up. "If she does something to provoke you, then you have to put her in her place," he said. "I'm not going to hit her in the face ... but I'm not going to run, either."

With that, a candid discussion was underway in Scott Steward's classroom.

"A guy may need to get a little physical ... to know where his girlfriend is at all times," one boy argued.

"It's a way to show how he cares about you," another said.

Until recently, most interventions for domestic abuse were geared toward older perpetrators and victims. But increased awareness of violence among teens is sparking a flurry of initiatives, including the lesson plan Steward used.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 14,000 high school students for a 2005 study, 9.2% said they had been "hit, slapped or physically hurt" by their dating partners in the previous 12 months, with about the same incidence among girls and boys.

But experts point out that hitting isn't the only form of abuse. A boy might send a girl's cellphone 30 text messages an hour to keep track of her.

Such examples underscore why experts believe efforts to prevent abuse and help victims must be tailored to the age group. Parents often are clueless about the technology teens use, which helps conceal high-risk situations.

"The appetite for information is huge," advocate Mariame Kaba said. "But it has to be youth-centered ... or we won't make a dent in the problem."

Advising an abused teenager living at home is different from advising a battered spouse, said Sheryl Cates, executive director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

For starters, most young victims don't confide in their parents, who probably aren't too keen on the boyfriend or girlfriend to begin with. Adults may insist that the relationship be ended -- not so easy in high school, where social status often goes hand in hand with one's boyfriend or girlfriend.

"Teens need to talk with someone who can relate to what they're going through ... where someone is supportive, nonjudgmental and has no control over them," Cates said.

Nykia Carter has more than a passing knowledge of the subject. In 2005, when she was 18, she was dating a 23-year-old man who seemed loving -- until Carter discovered she was pregnant.

"I started seeing some control issues, like he needed to know where I was at all times," Carter said. In November 2005, she said, her partner became enraged at a perceived slight, and beat her severely. She went into premature labor and was hospitalized.

Her daughter was born healthy in February 2006, and Carter did not file charges. "I grew up without a dad, and I didn't want that for my little girl," she said, but she did get an order of protection. When she has contact with the girl's father, she meets him in a public place.

What does she want young people to know?

"That it's never acceptable to place your hands on a woman, because you don't know your strength," said Carter. "And I would want girls who are in abusive relationships to understand that even if he says he loves you, he doesn't ... love should never cause physical pain."

Another initiative, called "Love Is Not Abuse," is playing out in classrooms like Steward's. The hourlong program, sponsored by Liz Claiborne Inc., has reached teens in 800 U.S. schools since it was introduced last year.

After his session with the students, Steward expressed dismay at how easily the teens seemed to accept everything from constant put-downs and name-calling to physical assaults. To teens inexperienced in dating, the intense attention can seem like love.

Diane Bedrosian, executive director of South Suburban Family Shelter, is familiar with the issue not just as a professional but as a parent. Her daughter, now 29, was stalked by a high school boyfriend. "He had a brother who committed suicide, and he would say, 'If you break up with me, I don't know what I'll do,' " Bedrosian said.

Deciding to leave such a relationship is harder than it might look, she added. "It may seem odd to adults, but there's a lot of pressure to stay together ... you'll have a date for Saturday nights, for prom. You may not be giving up kids or financial security like a spouse, but you're giving up a lot."

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