When the Family Justice Center holds sessions on domestic-violence response for police officers, trainer David Kitts will frequently include a former dating-violence victim on his panel, just to put a face with this crime. The woman shares incidents and her mindset—but she won't reveal the name of her abuser, or the high school she attended, since she's still fearful for her safety and wary of retribution from the perpetrator or his prominent Knoxville family.
She's still scared, and this is 15 years since the experience ended. How much worse must it be for the raft of Knox-area teens and adults currently caught in violent intimate relationships? Both data and anecdotal evidence point up to thousands of teens in our area experiencing violence at the hands of a dating partner intent on control. While the numbers didn't increase in the two years between the 2009 and the recently released 2011 Knox County Schools Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, 10.7 percent of high schoolers surveyed reported being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend during the 12 months before the survey—two years ago it was 11.7 percent.
And that's just high schoolers. The Family Crisis Center, which serves a number of clients ages 18-24, most of them women, senses a slight increase in dating violence in the past year or so. Its parent organization, Child & Family East Tennessee, recently received a three-year grant to "advocate for and respond to youth" in sexual assault and dating violence situations from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women. "Anecdotally, all violence is on the rise in this area," says Sheri Eastridge, who oversees three domestic violence prevention and response programs for CFET. "The stresses of the bad economy and drug and alcohol use don't actually cause dating violence—the perpetrator already has that potential. But they can exacerbate the violence, so we're seeing escalated incidents. The severity can lead to more victims more willing to come forward. They're not just being smacked or kicked around, but beat so severely they're having to go to the hospital."
High school dating violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has associated negatives: adolescents who report being physically hurt by intimate partners also are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, binge drink, use drugs, attempt suicide, and get in fights with others.
At the heart of the issue is not simple violent outbursts, though. Dating abuse differs from domestic abuse in that the victim and abuser don't live at the same residence, but both are based on a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner. "Any relationship can include a misunderstanding that results in a violent episode, and someone throws a punch," says Eastridge. "That's unhealthy, and the partners should seek counseling, but this type of abuse we're addressing is more than that. It involves emotional abuse, coercion, maybe physical harm, all occurring because the perpetrator is trying to exert control."
While the majority of those seeking help through the Family Justice Center or Family Crisis Center are women, young men are experiencing dating violence, too, with about equal numbers of male and female high-school students reporting hitting, slapping, or physical hurt in the past 12 months. And the soaring popularity of texting and social media has given the date abuser another weapon, both in stalking after a breakup and manipulation during the dating scenario.
"Textual harassment—young perpetrators of abuse will send constant texts to pressure, threaten, make abusive remarks," says Eastridge. "We've seen in some court cases where the perpetrator sent 200-300 texts in 30 minutes."
There's also Facebook, where an ex might employ the "check in" function to locate a victim, or post (or threaten to post) demeaning photos or abusive remarks where mutual friends can see them.
Perhaps the most threatening aspect of dating violence involves sexual force and coercion. A little over 10 percent of Knox County high-school students said they were ever physically forced to have unwanted sexual intercourse in the 2011 Youth Risk Survey.
Sexual violence is probably the most likely to go unreported, says Eastridge, and it more often involves coercion rather than physical force. "Teens get very confused; they think, ‘I wasn't being held down or tied, that's not sexual abuse.'" The threat is more likely to be verbal, says Eastridge, and a particularly prominent one is disclosure. "Say your abuser convinced you to take pictures during sex, and puts them on his mobile device, then later he wants sex. You don't, so he says, ‘I'll show everyone if you don't.' That's abuse, that kind of coercion."
Because dating abuse is all about control, certain young people are particularly susceptible. They are not, however, always those in the lowest economic brackets. Says Donna Smith, a local family attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law: "It's all about the dynamics of power and control, and income has no bearing whatsoever. I've had clients who were very, very wealthy, and those who were very, very poor."
To further the argument, Eastridge points out that with adults, the top four occupations where you find abusers are doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and clergy—people interested in power and control. "And one in four adult women has experienced abuse; that would be 100 percent of the lower income classes if it were true only the poor experienced this type of abuse."
There are, however, three risk factors that cut across socioeconomic lines and make young people more susceptible to dating abuse. Eastridge focuses on these three:
1. Witnessing abuse in their homes as children. Data shows boys who witness abuse are twice as likely to become perpetrators, while females who witness abuse are twice as likely to become victims.
2. Having a mental-health concern or physical disability. "Because of the dependence they feel towards their caregivers, who may also be intimate partners, these young people are more at risk of dating abuse," says Eastridge.
3. Low self-esteem. "The way I see it, and this may sound a little drastic, but the perpetrators of abuse are predators, just like pedophiles," says Eastridge. "They know the profile of the victim they're looking for, they know who's vulnerable. They pick out the one female or male who's least likely to protest or seek help."
Part of the abuser/abused relationship may be encouraged by a teen's family or society in general, says Smith, who also supervises the law school's Domestic Violence Clinic, which is on break this semester but may resume in the future. "So much goes into creating this dynamic, but part of it can be gender roles—the extent to which we make teen girls feel like they really need a boyfriend, and that if you do get one, you need to make sure he likes you all the time. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but that attitude can make it so traditionally raised female children are more susceptible."
And the sad fact is, a teen who's been made more popular by getting a boyfriend or girlfriend is the most likely to tolerate abusive behavior. "We're already seeing that in kids as young as preteen," says Eastridge.
One factor that doesn't seem to increase or decrease risk is sexual orientation. LGBT youth in same-sex relationships seem to experience similar levels of dating violence, says Eastridge, but the threats used might be different, like "I'll out you if you leave me," and isolation might be more of an issue.
Help Is on the Way?
In Knox County, victims of date abuse can get help. The Family Justice Center is a clearinghouse of advice and resources, including, in some cases, assistance with obtaining orders of protection, possibly through the 4th Circuit Court for those over 18, or through Juvenile for those who are younger. There is also a 24/7 hotline operated by the Family Crisis Center that served 2,357 women and children last year; counselors at the national hotline Love Is Respect can also advise through text or Facebook.
Says Eastridge: "The most important thing is to seek out safe adults who can let you know more about options and how to end the relationship safely. It's important to remember that at the time the victim chooses to leave or end the relationship, danger escalates."
Even the abusers have hope: Knox County has a batterers intervention program that involves 40-45 weeks of (usually court-ordered) activities centered around the perpetrator confronting both the attitudes that led to the abuse, and to the subsequent feeling that it's okay.
The biggest hurdle to any such resolution is denial—from the victims, from their family and friends. "There's a lot of denial and minimization; it's what you do to survive," says Eastridge. "A victim might say, or her friend might say, ‘He just smacked you, he didn't break your legs.'"
Teens and young adults of any Knoxville neighborhood will tell you that the tendency is to look the other way when someone's punched or slapped or pushed at a party; even a parent might tell the dating teen, "Aw, you shouldn't have made him so mad."
"We've made great strides to where child abuse is no longer a private matter, but we're still not there with dating abuse," says Eastridge. "There's great culture pressure to think that what happens to people in relationships is too private for someone else to interfere."
The OVAM grant money is targeted to help victims—ages 13-19—of sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking, particularly because they don't always have access to money, transportation, child care, or safe shelter. Furthermore, the grantors point out, "youth and young adults may be inexperienced with dating and may mistake potential abusive actions such as jealousy or controlling behavior as signs of love."
Eastridge hopes the grant helps with pragmatic help for abused teens, and more awareness raising; they hope to have the program up and running by fall 2012. "We have to make our culture aware it's not okay to use violence to get other people to do what you want them to do." m
Need help or advice about dating violence? Call the Family Crisis Center 24-hour hotline at 865-637-8000.
Dating Violence Warning Signs
According to Love Is Respect, a joint project of the national group Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, these are behaviors in a dating partner that indicate your relationship is moving in the wrong direction:
Checking your cellphone or e-mail without permission
Constantly putting you down
Extreme jealousy or insecurity
Isolating you from family or friends
Making false accusations
Physically hurting you in any way
Telling you what to do
For more information: loveisrespect.org