Heading off Abusive Relationships

Start StrongWhen I was a young adult, I was in an abusive relationship.

I didn’t realize it then, of course. I was swept off my feet and completely giddy, as most new relationships tend to begin. My boyfriend seemed equally infatuated, spending money taking me to expensive restaurants and holding my hand through walks in the park. I was so swept away that I didn’t notice when he slowly became emotionally abusive, and started stalking me by texting and calling me constantly, demanding answers to emails immediately.

I didn’t notice what was going on until he became physically abusive. I was 22 at the time and considered myself a savvy young career woman: college-educated and up-and-coming. Dating violence wasn’t even on my radar. I learned the hard way that relationship violence is a shocking reality for people of all ages, particularly teenagers.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011 study, nearly one in 10 U.S. high school students nationwide has been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a dating partner. When you extend the statistic to include emotional, sexual, and verbal abuse as well, the number jumps to one in three. Twenty-five percent of high school girls report being victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Moreover, about one in five women and nearly one in seven men who ever experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of partner violence between the ages of 11 and 17, also according to the CDC.

A national response 

This problem didn’t go unnoticed. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested $18 million in Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships (Start Strong), the largest initiative ever funded to target 11- to- 14-year-olds and rally entire communities to promote healthy relationships as the way to prevent teen dating violence and abuse. The collaboration with Futures Without Violence, formerly Family Violence Prevention Fund, partnered with 11 groups in cities all over the United States, serving communities of all races, incomes, and cultural backgrounds, to “identify and evaluate best practices in prevention to stop dating violence and abuse before it starts.”

The four-year initiative just ended in November 2012, though its resources are available online, and many schools have implemented — and will continue to teach — healthy dating behaviors as a result.

Start Strong – one local approach

After several years and a lot of healing with support from family, friends and a trusted counselor, I applied for and accepted a position with an Atlanta-based teen dating-violence-prevention program coordinated through the Jane Fonda Center at Emory University. I combined years of writing and journalism experience with several years of working as a mentor with young people, to reach Atlanta-area middle and high school students through social media.

Start Strong Atlanta was one of the 11 sites around the country charged with “engaging ‘teen influencers,’ such as older teens (ages 15 to 18), parents/caregivers, teachers, counselors, coaches and other mentors” to build an understanding that dating violence is a public-health issue, and to “build environments that support healthy relationships and ensure violence and abuse are never tolerated,” according to Start Strong’s website.

A small adult staff at Start Strong Atlanta worked to prevent and end teen dating violence through implementing a curriculum called “Safe Dates” in the region’s middle schools, and by using peer-education and social media as interventions. Start Strong Atlanta included a parent component as well as an advocacy component, encouraging lawmakers and school superintendents to add dating violence policies in schools

As a best practice in engaging adolescents, Start Strong Atlanta hired a team of local high school students to serve as peer leaders to the 7th grade target group. I worked with the older teens, encouraging social media participation, blogging and, along with my colleagues, guiding them in knowing how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships — including what to do if they found themselves or their friends in a dangerous dating situation.

The teens hired by Start Strong Atlanta attended Atlanta Public Schools, and most were growing up in lower-income households. Many of them had witnessed domestic violence, and a few reporting having already experienced dating violence in their relationships.

In addition to attending weekly trainings to practice relating to younger teens and the community, the teenage peer-educators were paid a stipend to attend community events and perform original pieces, such as skits, poems and music.

The peer educators’ primary duty was to perform a play as part of the “Safe Dates” curriculum for 7th grade classes. The 7th graders often asked thought-provoking questions of the older teens, eagerly participated in the discussions, and often stayed behind after the play to talk to the teens one-on-one.

The teenage peer educators loved having creative control and delivering the message of healthy relationships in a format they came up with and presented themselves. They were invested in and considered themselves to be constant ambassadors for the healthy relationships message of the program.

Start Strong Atlanta teen leader Sarah posted on the Start Strong Atlanta Facebook page, “I really appreciated this experience. I now can easily recognize a healthy and unhealthy relationship.”

Prevention requires policy, too

The problem of dating violence isn’t just a lack of awareness. Eight U.S. states currently do not include dating relationships in their definition of domestic violence. That means when a teen is being harassed by his or her dating partner, as 3.4 million people are (most of whom are ages 18 to 24), according to Love is Respect, a program of Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, he or she may not be permitted to apply for protective orders against the attacker.

There are often cultural barriers as well. Teens can be reluctant to talk to the police if they fear for their or their parents’ immigration status, or are concerned about outstanding court matters.

Keeping Strong

While the national Start Strong initiative is no longer active, there are lessons to be learned from the initiative and there are plenty of teen dating abuse resources available to youth workers today (see sidebar).

I keep up with the Start Strong Atlanta teens since the program ended. I’ve written several recommendations for college scholarships, and see them smiling in pictures with their friends in their first phases of adulthood. Occasionally I’ll run into a teen around the city, and they’ll happily tell me about their wonderful, supportive and respectful boyfriend or girlfriend. The results are clear: teen-to-teen engagement works.

As for me, I was lucky. I got out of that unhealthy relationship before any physical violence escalated to serious injury and severed contact immediately. The result is a slightly more cautious but infinitely wiser woman who does a lot of thinking before she gives her heart away.

But while many women go on to be in healthy, happy relationships, there are many other people who are abused by their partners Those men and women – and the 1.5 million kids who are abused by a dating partner each year –­ are why all youth workers and agency leaders need to know about preventing and coping with teen dating violence.

Sarah Hill is a social marketing specialist who is passionate about preventing all kinds of domestic abuse.

Photo courtesy Start Strong Atlanta


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