Getting Serious about Teen Relationship Abuse

Joan E. Lisante
April 11, 2004


When 16-year-old Megan met Dan, she was thrilled that the 20-year-old seemed so much more mature than her boyfriend, Lance. Before long, they were dating. She recorded mixed feelings in her diary: "He's trying to get me to come over... I love him, but he's obsessed. I can't break up with him...I don't know what I can do."

When she became pregnant with Dan's child, Megan decided to try to make the relationship work despite Dan's job losses, temper tantrums and threats.

Megan and her parents took care of her son Nicky, but the tug-of-war with Dan continued: "we had a huge fight... I slapped him and he took my rings. He burned all my things from Lance. He won't break up with me and I can't bring myself to do it," Megan wrote in swirly script. When Nicky turned 2, she told Dan the relationship was over. Dan fatally attacked Megan, grabbed Nicky and drove off a cliff. Dan survived. Nicky did not.

A Too-Common Experience

It was an extreme and tragic example of a too-common experience. There are girls like Megan struggling to break free of oppressive relationships all over the U.S. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that an estimated one in five female high school students experience physical or sexual abuse by a dating partner. This abuse is associated with high-risk behaviors, such as early onset of sexual activity, early pregnancy, increased risk of substance abuse, unhealthy weight-control behaviors and suicide attempts.

This problem cuts across racial and economic lines. Carlene Cobb, author of Coping with An Abusive Relationship (Rosen Publishing Group, 2001), points out that lack of self-esteem and knowledge of what a healthy relationship looks like can occur no matter where a teen grows up. Cobb explains how quickly relationship rage can flare: "One girl was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend, who asked her to get him a bowl of cereal. When she refused, he picked her up and threw her through a glass coffee table." Cobb frequently speaks to high school audiences, urging them to tell a trusted adult about abuse.

Despite the risk to teens involved in an abusive relationship, juvenile courts and many state laws have overlooked the special problems presented by adolescent domestic and family violence. For instance, many women's shelters don't take girls under 18 because they aren't set up to provide services such as transportation to school.

In addition, shelters often will not admit women who don't have an order of protection from a judge. But only 17 states permit minor victims of dating violence to apply for such orders on their own. In most other states, however, a parent can apply on behalf of a child.

Some shelters, such as the Anne Pierce Rogers Women's Shelter in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, do take teens. Shelter advocate Brenda Driscoll said, "we get lots of requests for shelter from girls in the upper teen years (about 17 through 20) because of relationship abuse. Many of these girls have children who stay with them." The Anne Pierce Rogers Shelter is one of three shelters run by the Tubman Family Alliance.

A California Judge Pioneers a New Approach

In 1999, under the leadership of Judge Eugene M. Hyman, Santa Clara County in California set up a separate court to deal with juvenile domestic and family violence. The Court attempts to intervene early in troubled teen relationships, combining strict accountability with education and victim services in an effort to head off violent behavior in adulthood.

10 Questions

Fashion icon Liz Claiborne has taken on relationship violence in her Love is Not Abuse initiative. Her Parent's Guide to Teen Dating Violence includes these questions to jump- start a conversation with teens:

1) How are things going?

2) What are your friends' dating relationships like?

3) Have you ever seen any kind of abusive behavior between two people who are going out?

4) Why do you think someone would abuse someone they were dating?

5) Why might a person stay in an abusive relationship?

6) What makes a relationship healthy?

7) What can you do if you have a friend who is threatened—or a friend who is abusive?

8) What kinds of messages about dating abuse and relationships do we see in the media?

9) When you think about going out, what are some behaviors that would be okay and some you'd have a problem with?

10) Where can you go to find help if you or a friend needs it?

Most minors the Court sees are not yet emancipated, don't have children and don't live with the victims—they're still entrenched in their own nuclear families. Still, says Hyman, young victims share many similarities with older women. "I've seen that teen victims are exactly like adult victims, in terms of recantation and denial. You see 16-year-olds acting the same as 30-year-old victims," he said.

Probation officers, juvenile hall staff, prosecutors, public defenders, and court personnel work together to coordinate treatment of batterers and victims. The district attorney and public defender have specially-trained attorneys to handle these cases.

There's not a lot of privacy in this program. A standing court order permits information to be freely exchanged among all agencies, including a criminal history check of parents or guardians and a check of the statewide registry for restraining orders against the offender and family members.

Santa Clara police protocol now requires officers to arrest juvenile domestic violence offenders, just as they do adult offenders. Before the court existed, probation typically diverted domestic violence offenders to programs offering informal supervision. Now, those arrested and admitted to juvenile hall must appear before the court for a detention hearing before they can be released.

Program Highlights

A teen enrolled in the Santa Clara program will typically experience:

  • A protective order requiring that the batterer stay away from the victim. "The order sends a strong message to the batterer...that there will be no contact, and other prohibited behavior. It also allows the victim time away from the batterer to receive victim services, including the assistance of advocates. Finally, the order allows law enforcement to make arrests for violations of orders, even those not committed in their presence," Hyman said.
  • A 26-week intervention program covering the dynamics of power and control, socialization, gender roles, the nature of violence and the effects of violence on children and others.
  • Stringent probation supervision, including curfews, weapons bans, mandatory school or job attendance, drug and alcohol testing, placement in special education or substance abuse programs if necessary.
  • "Parenting without Violence" classes if the couple has a child.
  • Fines or detention for infractions.
  • Frequent court review.

Services for the victim include restitution, psychological or family counseling, job training, referral to support groups and community resources, legal assistance, and assignment of a support person at court.

The Santa Clara County Juvenile Domestic and Family Violence Court has inspired other jurisdictions, such as San Francisco County, to start similar courts.

Stepping In Early with Education

Before relationship abuse reaches the stage where criminal justice agencies might become involved, there are privately and publicly funded programs across the U.S. to educate teens about relationship violence. Successful programs tie together all parts of a teen's life and have some things in common:

  • Structure and a variety of services to address individual needs.
  • Staff trained in adolescent development and domestic violence issues.
  • A "zero tolerance" attitude, with clear consequences for violators.
  • Twin goals of protecting the victim and re-educating both the batterer and victim.
  • Collaboration and information sharing among agencies—police, probation, schools, etc.

On the Front Lines: Showing Teens What a Good Relationship Is

Some programs fighting adolescent relationship abuse go to where teens are a captive audience: high schools. Pam Glenn, a certified nurse-midwife, developed her own program on the dangers of dating violence and abuse, which she presents to co-ed 10th grade high school health classes at three Minnesota high schools.

Glenn focuses on emotional abuse dynamics, emphasizing that teenage boys and girls share responsibility. She covers classic warning signs of a skewed relationship: isolation, degrading the partner, possessiveness and interrogation about friends and activities, jealousy, sexual coercion and threats if the partner attempts to break up.

Students share their reactions after each class.

"I learned that my previous relationship was quite unhealthy...she would always call and ask what I was doing...and freak out if I was with another girl. I never had time to be with my friends. Even though we have broken up, she still says she needs me and that without me she has no place in life." — Brian, age 15

"Someone very close to me is in a very abusive relationship... I can't believe we didn't see it before this." — Melissa, age 16.

"I could really relate to what you said. I think I've isolated my partner and now I'm working to change that. I want to be a better partner." — Jason, age 16.

"Your talk made me feel a lot better. It helped me see what I got myself into... I know where to turn now." — Candace, age 15.

Another school-based program is Cornerstone, a Minnesota-based community non-profit organization offering the PAVE program (Preventing Abuse & Violence through Education.) "Adults don't understand the tremendous power of new love," says director Barton Erikson. The need to fit in is so strong among teens that even when relationships are abusive, the inclination is to hang on. Belonging to someone, even an abuser, is better than belonging to no one." And a teen breaking up with an abuser, Erikson notes, is likely to run into that person at school.

Cornerstone, partnering with Verizon Wireless, created the "U Have the Right" CD, 12 tracks showing how emotional blackmail and physical intimidation are used to push girls into unwanted sex. U Have the Right's Website is filled with ideas for helping someone in an abusive relationship, as well as diagrams contrasting healthy and unhealthy relationships.

See It and Stop It

Before teens can leave an abusive relationship or help a friend engaged in one, they have to know what behaviors are unacceptable.

At See It and Stop It, they'll find examples of both physical and emotional abuse. The site includes a pop quiz on abuse and a personalized plan for staying safe both during and after leaving a relationship.

See It and Stop It is sponsored by the Advertising Council, in conjunction with the Teen Action Campaign and Family Violence Prevention Fund. Marjorie Clapprood, Executive Director of the Teen Action Campaign, points out that "Any serious attempt to decrease the incidence of domestic and sexual violence has to include prevention...getting to kids before they form serious intimate relationships, and challenging unhealthy behaviors and attitudes before they become entrenched."


For teens:

  • Teen Central offers an anonymous Web-based help-line; professionally monitored teen discussions in a password-protected; and many other resources.
  • U Have the Right
  • See It and Stop It
  • Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to end domestic violence by working proactively with youth.

For adults:

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney and freelance writer who frequently covers topics affecting teens.

Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, Better Homes & Gardens, Entrepreneur and other publications.