Develop State And Local Strategies to Increase Awareness of Healthy Relationships to Prevent Dating Violence
Relationship violence amongst teens is an extensive problem, often hidden in plain sight. Studies show one in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend (Grunbaum et al., 2004), and each year nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006).
One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner (Davis, 2008). Young women ages 16–24 experience the highest rates of abuse, at a rate almost triple the national average (Love Is Respect, 2015).
In addition to the staggering rate at which dating violence is happening, it can start at a very young age and have lifelong impact. Studies have shown violent behavior often begins between the ages of 12 and 18 (Rosado, 2000) and violence in adolescent relationships puts victims at a higher risk for immediate and lifelong issues, including emotional and behavioral problems, substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence (Decker et al., 2005; Silverman et al., 2001; Smith et al., 2017).
According to a national study, 7 percent of women who were victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, first experienced violence by that partner before the age of 18. Georgia’s numbers are slightly above this national estimate at 9 percent
(Smith et al., 2017). This statistic translates to 336,000 Georgia girls experiencing their first lifetime incident of intimate partner violence prior to age 18. The study did not offer Georgia-specific numbers for male youth who experienced intimate partner violence, but nationally, just under 4 percent, or one in 27 men, reported experiencing intimate partner violence prior to the age of 18 (Smith et al., 2017).
The severity of violence perpetrated by young people is also problematic. In 49 percent of cases reviewed by the Project, victims began their relationship with the person who went on to kill them between the ages of 13 and 24. Thirty-seven percent of the time, perpetrators began the relationship with the victim they went on to kill between ages 13 and 24. These fatal circumstances mirror what national research has also revealed: The severity of intimate partner violence is often greater in cases where the pattern of abuse was established during adolescence (Love is Respect, 2015).
Beth and Jeremy met at church and began “talking” during youth group. Eventually Jeremy started coming over to Beth’s house and they began dating officially. The relationship started well, but went downhill quickly and they began to fight a lot. Jeremy became increasingly controlling of Beth, constantly calling her when they were not together and texting her repeatedly if she did not answer.
Beth began to think Jeremy was cheating and after a few days of fighting, she ended the relationship. After the breakup, Jeremy texted Beth and begged her to come over so they could talk. She went to his house and texted him that she was there. Jeremy met her outside. The talking quickly escalated to fighting and Beth said she was leaving. Jeremy held Beth by her arms and wrists. When she insisted the relationship was over, Jeremy struck Beth with a tire iron and a brick before strangling her with a cord. Beth was 17 at the time of her death, Jeremy was 21.
Despite the prevalence and severity of teen dating violence, those closest to the victim and perpetrator are often left in the dark about the dangerous dynamics of the relationship. A study of teen victims revealed only 33 percent of those in an abusive relationship ever told anyone about the abuse (Love is Respect, 2015). It is thus not surprising that 81 percent of parents believe dating violence is not an issue, or admit they do not know if it is an issue (Love is Respect, 2015).
Often unnoticed, these dangerous adolescent relationships frequently continue unfettered through young adulthood. One in six college women has been sexually abused in a dating relationship, and nearly half of dating college women experience violent and abusive dating behaviors (Fifth & Pacific Companies, 2010). Sadly, for those college-aged youth experiencing abuse, their peers are no more prepared than their parents to identify or respond to abuse. Fifty-seven percent of college students say abuse is difficult to identify, and 58 percent say they don’t know how to help someone who is experiencing it (Fifth & Pacific Companies, 2010). These missed opportunities for early intervention could set victims on a path for future violence and decreased health and well-being which extends into adulthood.
Despite the mounting case in support of dating violence education and intervention, Georgia has done little to address the problem of teen dating violence in any comprehensive manner. Though O.C.G.A. § 20-2-314 requires the State Board of Education to develop a program for preventing teen dating violence for grades 8–12, a requirement for local schools to carry out such a program is notably absent from state requirements, despite the presence of related educational efforts including bullying awareness, sexual education, social responsibility and health. Implementing a healthy relationships curriculum is optional for Georgia’s schools, and it appears that little follow-up is done on the statewide level to encourage local educational opportunities on the subject matter.
In contrast to how the issue of dating violence has been handled, and recognizing the vital role Georgia’s educators play in the lives of our youth, the Department of Education has responded to some assessments of risky behaviors among Georgia’s youth. With recent studies revealing that 8.6 percent of youth in grades 9–12 disclosed least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2018), for example, educators have been mandated to receive training in suicide prevention. These suicide statistics are on par with the rate of intimate partner violence experienced by Georgia’s teen girls, who were victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at a rate of 8.9 percent, yet no mandate exists for educators on the subject of dating violence awareness or intervention. This must change.
That said, the burden of dating violence identification and intervention cannot be shouldered by school systems alone. Georgia’s domestic violence programs are still navigating the best ways to adequately serve young survivors. Many domestic violence programs lack the capacity to address the unique needs and safety concerns of teen victims. Only 20–25 programs statewide are known to have services offered specifically for teens experiencing abusive relationships. And while Georgia’s Breaking Silence Teen Textline has been in place since 2012, the number of contacts received annually is nowhere near the number of victims eligible for supportive services. In 2017, the Textline’s first year of statewide operation, advocates had 235 conversations with youth which provided support, resources and safety planning (Lisco & Haddon, 2018).
Supplementing the work done in-state, national providers such as Love Is Respect offer services both to teens experiencing violence in their relationships and teen allies. During 2017, Georgia ranked eighth in the nation in terms of contact volume on Love Is Respect’s online and telephone channels (Love Is Respect, 2018). During that year, the organization received 757 calls and chats from Georgia and provided crisis intervention, safety planning, referrals to resources, and dating violence education to each caller. Thirty-eight percent of victims in contact for supportive services were ages 19–24 and 18 percent were under the age of 18.
Beyond niche advocacy, Georgia’s youngest victims of relationship violence also need enhanced protection under the law. In order to qualify for a TPO, for example, Georgia law requires an adult to petition for a TPO on behalf of a minor victim of intimate partner violence. Even college-aged students, residing on their own and often in locations remote from their families, are still required to have someone age 18 or over assist them in petitioning the court for safety interventions. Although on the surface this request may not seem consequential, for victims under the age of 18 who are afraid or unable to confide in their parent, guardian or other trusted adult, being unable to self-petition for a TPO is an added barrier to safety which may extend the life of an unhealthy or dangerous relationship. That is, assuming they can even meet the relationship qualifications for protections.
Georgia law does not include abuse between dating partners among those criteria which qualify for a Family Violence TPO unless they have lived together or had children together. Though some teen victims may meet the qualifications for a Stalking TPO, that civil action often leaves Georgia’s judges without authority to require young perpetrators to participate in accountability-enhancing and behavior-modifying programs.
As a whole, Georgia is coming up short in our ability to meet the needs of teen victims seeking interventions to abuse, as well as those perpetrating abuse within these age groups. Ignoring the problem or relying on parents to impress the importance of healthy relationships does not work. Widespread awareness of what constitutes healthy relationships and dating behaviors is needed, along with simultaneous expansion of intervention efforts and supportive services tailored for the growing population of young victims and perpetrators. Acting to prevent violence within the relationships of Georgia’s youth is a key step toward reducing violence in adult relationships.
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO INCREASE AWARENESS OF HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS AND TO PREVENT RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE:
- Institute age-appropriate discussions about healthy relationships in Georgia’s school curriculum. Programs are available to teach students to recognize healthy, safe qualities and behaviors in relationships. Many, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s “Take a Stand FOR Healthy Teen Relationships” are designed for in-school use. Visit NCADV.org/teens4healthyrelationships to download the program’s materials for students grades 6–12. School personnel including teachers, counselors, School Resource Officers, office staff, coaches and school leadership should also receive training on identifying and responding to relationship violence among students.
- Build capacities of domestic violence programs to respond to teens experiencing relationship violence, as well as those who witness violence in their own homes. The expansion of teen dating violence prevention programs should include teen-centered interventions for victims experiencing dating violence. Examples include safety planning options specifically for and hosting support groups for victims of teen dating violence and/or teens who have been exposed to domestic violence involving adults in their home. Georgia domestic violence programs interested in expanding services to teens should consider contacting the Georgia Teen Advocate Network (GTAN), a cohort of advocates who are working to implement and improve local teen dating violence awareness and prevention programs and empower youth as allies in their efforts. For more information on joining GTAN, contact the Partnership Against Domestic Violence (404) 870-9600 or Project Safe (706) 549-0922.
- Increase awareness of resources available to teens, such as textlines. Georgia teens can contact the Breaking Silence Teen Textline any time at (706) 765-8019 for confidential support. Love Is Respect also offers teens a safe place to connect with an advocate via text. Users can text “loveis” to 22522 to receive assistance from a peer advocate.
- Expand Georgia law to include civil protections for victims experiencing violence in their dating relationships. Georgia lawmakers must recognize the adverse impact the state’s current law has on our youngest and most vulnerable victims of relationship violence. The requirement for teen dating violence victims to have an adult petition for TPO relief on their behalf often provides a barrier to safety and justice for victims as well as accountability for abusers. Dating relationships should also be among those qualified for TPOs.