Ending the epidemic
Dec. 8 is ‘It’s Time to Talk Day’
By Sarah Hall
Stephanie Piston has seen some awful things in her lifetime, but a recent incident in particular makes the North Syracuse mom’s blood run cold.
“Not too long ago, I was at the gas station,” Piston said. “This young girl was walking by, carrying a bag, and this guy was walking with her and berating her. They were young – teens. And he just kept getting right up in her face, and she’s trying to get away from him, and he’s yelling at her. I’m at the pump, and I yell across the station, ‘Hey, leave her alone. She doesn’t want you to talk to her. I see what you’re doing.’ I’m watching, and he’s getting in her face. A cop pulls into the gas station, and I grabbed the police officer. The kids had walked across the street, and it looks like it’s going to come to blows. I told the cop, ‘He’s going to hurt her. He’s verbally abusing her and getting in her personal space and won’t leave her alone.’ And this other woman says, ‘I’ve been watching, too.’ And there were men coming in and out of the station, and not one of them pulled this kid aside and said, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk.’ Not one man intervened to help this girl, but two women did. By that time, the kid had grabbed the girl and spilled the bag, and food was all over the place, and she was scared. The cop got him away from and took her home.
“At one point, I was that girl, and no one knew enough to help me,” Piston said. “I could see her fear, and I felt really bad for her. You shouldn’t have to go through life being attacked like that in public. And the worst part was that nobody stepped up to say something. And that’s got to change.”
Piston is herself a survivor of domestic abuse. She left a violent marriage 17 years ago. Now, she’s doing everything she can to keep others from ending up in her position.
This article is the first in a four-part series on dating violence. Every week in December, the Eagle Star-Review will bring you more information about intimate relationship abuse. Here’s what’s coming up:
Dec. 14: In the high schools – what our high schools are doing to educate kids about intimate partner violence
Dec. 21: At the college level – programs at Syracuse, Le Moyne and other area schools to protect college kids from dating abuse
Dec. 28: Unexpected victims – violence against LGBT partners and female-against-male violence, as well as programs in place to help victims
For the last several years, Piston has acted as a state action leader for the Love Is Not Abuse Coalition, an initiative of Liz Claiborne, Inc. The main goal of Love Is Not Abuse (LINA) is to enact a curriculum in all schools that educates tweens and teens on healthy and unhealthy relationships. The curriculum details the signs of violent and abusive relationships and offers tips on how to safely get out of a violent relationship.
Another part of Piston’s duties as a state action leader is to encourage communication between teens and their parents. That’s the premise behind “It’s Time to Talk Day,” which takes place on Thursday, Dec. 8.
‘It’s Time to Talk Day”
As part of It’s Time to Talk Day, Piston will join other LINA state action leaders as well as members of numerous other organizations to start conversations about dating violence. The nation’s top domestic violence experts, state and federal attorney generals, corporate leaders, legislators, celebrities, parents and teens will gather at Liz Claiborne Inc. in New York City 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.”
Piston said this is the third time she’s been invited to the event in New York City, but the first time her schedule has allowed her to go.
“I’m really looking forward to going and hearing what they have to say,” she said. “Maybe they’re doing something we’re not.”
In addition to LINA, numerous other organizations will be a part of Thursday’s event.
“Now we’re partnering up with everybody else, because it’s the only way to get the collective message out,” Piston said. “The Joyful Heart Foundation is going to be there on Thursday with Mariska Hargitay. MTV will be there with their A Thin Line program, which is digital dating, digital drama. And I give MTV a lot of credit, because they do specials on digital drama, and cyberbullying. The Love Is Louder program is joining is. The Jed Foundation is joining us. Even though they’re different pieces of it, those behaviors all fall under that violence umbrella, and if we can help each other out, why not spread the word and spread the workload?”
In addition to the national dialogue, the idea behind It’s Time to Talk Day is to get parents and teens talking about dating violence.
“According to one of the surveys we did, parents think their kids will talk to them. Eighty percent of parents think their kids will come to them with a relationship problem,” Piston said. “On the flip side, when we talked to the kids, 30 percent said they’d talk to their parents. That’s a huge disparity between what parents perceive and what kids are saying.”
If parents aren’t sure of how to broach the topic with their kids, loveisnotabuse.org has helpful tips. The important thing is starting the conversation.
“Just take a day and talk about it,” Piston said. “It doesn’t have to be anything major – just talk about it. Engage your kids. Start with a news article and show it to them. Ask them about it. How do you think you would handle it? Ask them what they would do. A lot of times they’re a lot wiser than we think they are. If they don’t have that piece of education, they’re going to become a statistic, and I don’t want to see that.”
Piston said she was very nearly a statistic herself. She married young and ultimately found herself deep within an unhealthy relationship – with few options for a safe exit.
“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.”
Even years later, when she understood that she didn’t deserve it, Piston had to battle the perceptions of those who questioned why she didn’t leave earlier.
“One of my favorites was, ‘I can’t imagine you ever allowing that to happen.’ You don’t allow it to happen,” she said. “It happened. Who I am now is not who I was then. I was in a different place with a different set of support systems – no support system, really. Where was I going to go? My family was hundreds of miles away with small children of their own. I’m not going to bring that to their doorstep. You want to protect your family and your friends. ‘I can’t imagine you allowing that.’ I didn’t allow it. It happened to me. It wasn’t something I allowed. Let’s get that straight right off the bat.”
Now, despite a diagnosis of PTSD and numerous emotional scars, Piston is remarried. She has two children, and she has daily conversations with them about topics like healthy relationships and respectful treatment of others.
“It has to be a continuing conversation,” Piston said.
If that conversation can continue, Piston said, maybe the perceptions about domestic violence can be changed.
“People say, ‘Domestic violence happens in the home,’” Piston said. “They don’t think it can be between people dating, They don’t think it can be between kids. That’s why we say domestic violence and intimate partner relationships, because people see it differently. That’s the perception we have to change.”
And if the statistics tell us anything, they have to change soon. According to a 2011 study by Liz Claiborne Inc., 48 percent of college students, most of them women, have been affected by domestic violence behaviors. A 2010 study of teens (ages 13 to 19) said one in three had experienced it.
“That’s why the education piece is so important,” Piston said. “If we can get them now, we can drop that number down. I was shocked when I saw that. To go from 33 percent to almost 50 percent, and it’s not that big of a time frame from high school to college.”
The most important part, Piston said, is getting rid of the stigma associated with talking about dating and intimate partner violence. If the issue stays in the dark, it could be a matter of life or death.
“Breast cancer used to be something we didn’t talk about,” she said. “Now we talk about it, and the survival rate is very high. We all wear pink and we talk about it and there are all these awareness campaigns. One in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in three teens. That’s an epidemic and we do nothing about it, because it’s something to be taken care of in the home.”
But if the conversation is brought to the light, if parents and kids discuss the signs of dating violence, parents have an opportunity to keep their kids safe.
“We can’t afford to lose any more young adults,” Piston said. “The butcher bill is getting too high. This epidemic is going to get worse, and it’s going to meet critical mass soon. So we just keep talking in the hopes that someone will listen.”
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.