Curbing the Violence
Is Sooner Better?
By Lori Solomon
Jan. 22, 2001 -- "Well it wasn't two weeks
after she got married that
Reactions vary to the Dixie Chicks' controversial song "Good-bye Earl," in which an abused wife and her friend kill an abusive husband. Some women can relate all too well. Others, young and old, have a hard time understanding why a woman would stay with a man who beats her.
"It is kind of stupid to stay with someone who would hurt you, because it could be dangerous," says Terri, a 13-year-old Dixie Chicks fan and seventh grader in Philadelphia.
"Until you stand in their shoes, one won't understand the choices available or not available to them," says Maryadele Revoy, a public education specialist at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence based in Harrisburg, Pa. "Adults [and teens] have the same questions and may not fully understand the delicate dynamics."
Yet young teens like Terri soon may learn in school about dating and domestic violence. A new trend is emerging in state and federally funded programs that combat violence against women: They are starting earlier -- in middle school -- targeting students as young as 12.
Girls are being taught to demand respect in their early dating relationships, while boys are learning to improve communication skills to avoid becoming abusers. Experts believe these efforts will have a long-term impact, eventually reducing rates of intimate partner violence. But since most of these programs are so new, no one knows for sure.
The term "intimate partner violence" is replacing "domestic violence," which has grown to include elder abuse and child abuse, while failing to encompass victims of same-sex violence. The CDC defines this as "intentional emotional and/or physical abuse by a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend, or date."
According to the National Violence Against Women Survey released in July 2000 by the National Institute of Justice and the CDC, intimate partner violence is a serious public health concern, with nearly one in four women questioned saying they were raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Based on the survey results, experts estimate that 4.8 million intimate partner rapes and physical assaults are perpetrated against women annually, with more than 10% resulting in injuries serious enough for the women to seek medical treatment.
"Adolescents don't have the same protective factors as adults, and are at even greater risk for violence," says Abigail Sims, the In Touch with Teens program coordinator at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, one of the earliest programs to address teen dating violence. "The girls don't fit a profile. They are not weak, submissive girls. Sometimes they even hit back."
A misperception exists that victims of dating violence come from abusive homes. Experts say that nearly half of teenage girls in abusive relationships have never witnessed violence at home and often come from educated, middle- or upper-class homes. While studies do reveal huge variations depending on the population sampled and the exact definition of abuse, it is considered reasonable to estimate that at least 25% of teenagers will experience dating violence.
"There is huge social pressure to be in a heterosexual relationship on every high school campus I've been on," says Sims. "Teens have it difficult because the opinions of their peer group are so important to them. Teens also have less experience. They might not know what is inappropriate. Even with a healthy family, parents might not have sat them down, saying what to expect out of a relationship."
Targeting prevention efforts at teenagers seems a natural part of the movement to combat violence in the home, a movement that began more than 30 years ago. Early efforts have included responses such as shelters for battered women and rape crisis centers. Sims says advocates realized they had to "go further upstream" and educate women sooner. The first such programs began around 10 years ago, but there has been a national push in the last five years to reach adolescents.
"There is a lot of stigma and shame being in an abusive relationship," says Barri Rosenbluth, director of school-based services at Safe Place in Austin, Texas, which runs "Expect Respect," a school-based prevention and intervention program. "Girls will say, 'I would never be with somebody who would hit me.' If it happened on the first date, they probably wouldn't. But if they have a lot committed to the relationship, like they have already had sex, they feel like they have a lot to lose."
While advocates acknowledge a lack of scientific studies of the effectiveness of dating violence prevention programs targeted at teenagers, the few published evaluations show at least some promising results. Writing in the October 2000 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that a year after participating in "Safe Dates," an adolescent dating violence prevention program, teenagers reported less psychological and physical abuse involving their dating partners. The researchers wrote that changes in dating violence norms -- that is, what might be tolerated -- gender stereotyping, and awareness of counseling and intervention services could explain the program's positive effects. They plan on following the teenagers for five years following their participation in Safe Dates.
But experts say several barriers, including a lack of funding and initial hesitance by school officials, make implementation and evaluation of such programs difficult.
"School districts and school boards are political animals and have been hesitant to take it on," says Revoy. While inroads are being made in schools, "it is another item on a full plate for teachers. There is concern for the child's well-being because [the school] may not know the proper resources or referrals."
Community support for such programs often is lacking because parents think it "just doesn't happen in our neighborhood." Other communities, Sims says, may be reluctant to get involved because they are afraid of a huge outpouring they may not be able to handle.
An additional barrier is that, to some extent, dating violence is a "socially acceptable behavior," Sims says. "It is common for a young man to slap or pull his girlfriend in the middle of a mall, and nobody does anything about it."
Lori Solomon is a freelance health writer in Atlanta who has written for the New York Times, the Health Network, Medical Tribune News Service, and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
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