One in three teens is a victim of domestic violence by a partner
Kari Ann Gorman’s mother had no idea she was being abused.
“As her mother, I did notice changes in Kari after she started dating her abuser,” said Buffalo-area native Kim Gorman. “I am very sorry that never having been around abusive relationships myself, I was not aware that the changes I was seeing in Kari were so dangerous. We only knew that we did not like the changes that we were seeing.”
As it was, the abuse wasn’t physical until Shawn Wolf, 19, shot and killed 18-year-old Kari on July 26, 2008.
Sadly, Kari’s story isn’t unique. A recent study by Liz Claiborne Inc., a national leader in teen dating violence prevention, found that one-third of teens will be a victim of abuse by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
The statistics concerning dating violence among teens are staggering.
“One in three teens will be a victim of domestic violence by a partner,” said Stephanie Piston of North Syracuse. “So if you have a classroom of 30 students, 10 of those are potential victims.”
And it starts at a young age, said Piston, a New York State Action Leader for Moms and Dads for Education to Stop Teen Violence.
“The sad trend is that we’re seeing this kind of behavior in kids as young as 11,” Piston said. “In tweens ages 10 to 13, 50 percent of kids have witnessed verbal abuse of someone they knew by a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Indeed, according to a Liz Claiborne Inc. study on teen dating abuse conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, 26 percent of teenage girls in a relationship reported enduring repeated verbal abuse, while 13 report being physically hurt or hit. Twenty-four percent of 14 to 17-year-olds know at least one student who has been the victim of dating violence.
And the worst part is that the parents don’t know; according to another Liz Claiborne study, 81 percent of parents either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it is an issue, and less than 25 percent of teens say they have discussed dating violence with their parents.
“Parents think their kids talk to them, but they don’t, not really,” Piston said. “And it’s not their fault — they’re too busy. In this economy, more parents are working two jobs. They’re out of the house more. They don’t have the time to talk to their kids about these issues. But they need to make the time.”
A difference is MADE
That’s why Piston, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, joined MADE, a coalition of parents and advocates fighting dating violence among teens and tweens.
“MADE came out of a meeting of the minds between Redbook and Liz Claiborne Inc.,” Piston said. “Liz Claiborne has been doing education on domestic violence for more than 15 years, especially the unknown and unpublicized issue of teen dating violence. Redbook learned about it and wanted to help, so last December they came up with the coalition.”
Piston got involved last November, when Redbook published an article spotlighting teen domestic violence and giving tips on how parents can help.
“They were also looking for stories, and I submitted a story about my experience,” Piston said. “I saw that I had an opportunity to do some good. I submitted it the day before it was due — that’s how long I sat on this. And this past January, they let me know that they picked my story.”
Piston said people are always surprised to learn she was once living with a man who abused her.
“They say, ‘You don’t seem like the type to put up with that,'” she said. “But you never know how you’ll react until you’re in that situation.”
Piston, now remarried and a mother of two, has an analogy she likes to use to describe living in that kind of situation.
“It’s like a frog,” she said. “You put a frog in a pot of hot water, and it jumps out immediately to save its own skin. But if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will stay there until it’s too late, because it gets used to it gradually.
That’s what it’s like. Gradually it escalates until you believe this is normal. You believe you deserve it.”
MADE is designed to change that mindset.
“The goal of MADE is to get every state to require a curriculum for middle and high schools to educate them on domestic violence, especially among teens,” Piston said. “What is a healthy relationship? What is a violent relationship? If you’re in a bad relationship, this will give you the tools to get the help you need and to get out safely. If your friend is in a bad relationship, it will give you the tools to help without putting yourself in danger.”
How schools can help
MADE and Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Love is Not Abuse Campaign have put together a curriculum for middle and high school students to change the misconceptions about teen dating violence and provide the proper tools to those who need help. Taught in English and health education classes, the curriculum uses poems and short stories as a springboard to help teens understand how to make healthy choices in relationships and what to do if they are in abusive ones.
It also includes information about loveisrespect.org, The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. (For more on the curriculum, see the sidebar entitled “Curriculum Goals.”) To date, over 1,400 schools nationwide have begun using the curriculum.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the curriculum has the support of every state attorney general in the country, getting local schools to adopt it hasn’t been easy.
“The schools don’t want to address the issue,” Piston said. “They don’t want to talk about it. I sent letters to every school in Onondaga County asking them to put this curriculum in place, and I heard back from only one district. They just don’t want to talk about it. They say, ‘Oh, kids will be kids,’ but this is not typical kid behavior.”
Piston said many districts will cite funding as an issue, but there’s no basis for that argument.
“School districts are not equipped for this,” she said. “They say they don’t have the money. But there is money available. There are federal grants through the DARE program — you just have to ask for it. It’s just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. You teach them those, you teach them about drug awareness and alcohol awareness. It’s time to teach them about relationship awareness.”
Piston hopes the state will soon mandate the use of the Love Is Not Abuse curriculum; there is currently a bill in the State Assembly’s Education Committee, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Al Stirpe, named after Kari Ann Gorman requiring its adoption by New York’s schools.
“Hopefully we’ll be pushing it through by next spring,” Piston said. “We need to get a law in place to require this.”
Talking it out
In the absence of a statewide curriculum educating students and parents about teen dating abuse, MADE, Liz Claiborne Inc. and other advocacy groups are urging parents to discuss the issue with their kids.
That’s the idea behind Talk It Out Day, held nationwide Thursday Dec. 3. At an event in New York City, the nation’s top domestic violence experts, state and federal attorney generals, corporate leaders, legislators, celebrities, parents and teens gathered at Liz Claiborne Inc. to participate in a national day of dialogue and awareness on domestic violence and teen dating abuse.
“The goal of It’s Time to Talk Day is to raise awareness of the importance of all sectors becoming involved in these issues–government leaders, the media, the non-profit sector and the private sector,” said Jane Randel, vice president of corporate communications for Liz Claiborne Inc. “Involving all these partners is the only way we can end the devastating cycle of abuse.”
If you need tips on how to talk to your kids about dating violence, visit loveisnotabuse.org.
Regardless of how it’s done, Piston stressed that education needs to take place to raise awareness of the issue of teen dating violence.
“People need to be more aware,” she said. “We need to educate every child and every parent. We’ve lost too many people. We can’t lose any more. We need to make a change now.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.