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A Rise in Efforts to Spot Abuse in Youth Dating
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A Rise in Efforts to Spot Abuse in Youth Dating
By ELIZABETH OLSON
Published: January 3, 2009
She was 17 when she met her boyfriend, and 20 when she died at his hands. In between, Heather Norris tried several times to leave the relationship, which was fraught with control and abuse, before she was killed — stabbed, dismembered and discarded in trash bags.
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A.J. Mast for The New York Times
Deborah Norris, whose daughter Heather was killed by her boyfriend, speaking last month at an Indianapolis high school.
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Heather Norris, 20, was killed by her boyfriend in Indianapolis, where officers in schools are being trained to recognize abuse.
Her death in 2007 in Indianapolis is one of several stemming from abuse in teenage dating relationships that have spurred states and communities to search for new ways to impress on adolescents — and their parents and teachers — the warning signs of dangerous dating behavior and what actions are not acceptable or healthy.
Texas recently adopted a law that requires school districts to define dating violence in school safety codes, after the 2003 stabbing death of Ortralla Mosley, 15, in a hallway of her Austin high school and the shooting death of Jennifer Ann Crecente, 18, two years ago. Rhode Island in 2007 adopted the Lindsay Ann Burke Act — prompted by the murder of a young woman by a former boyfriend — requiring school districts to teach students in grades 7 through 12 about dating abuse.
New York recently expanded its domestic violence law to allow victims, including teenagers in dating relationships, to obtain a restraining order against an abuser in family court rather than having to seek help from the criminal justice system. Legislators were moved to act after a survey by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that dating violence had risen by more than 40 percent since 1999, when the department began asking students about the problem.
Although there are no definitive national studies on the prevalence of abuse in adolescent relationships, public health research indicates that the rate of such abusive relationships has hovered around 10 percent. Experts say the abuse appears to be increasing as more harassment, name-calling and ridicule takes place among teenagers on the Internet and by cellphone.
“We are identifying teen dating abuse and violence more than ever,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, who began doing research on abuse in teenage dating relationships nearly a decade ago.
Dr. Miller cited a survey last year of children ages 11 to 14 by Liz Claiborne Inc., a clothing retailer that finances teenage dating research, in which a quarter of the 1,000 respondents said they had been called names, harassed or ridiculed by their romantic partner by phone call or text message, often between midnight and 5 a.m., when their parents are sleeping.
Such behavior often falls under the radar of parents, teachers and counselors because adolescents are too embarrassed to admit they are being mistreated.
They can seek help from the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, where calls and hits to its Web site, loveisrespect.org, doubled in November over the previous month. Awareness of the help line has grown since it was started in early 2007.
Most of the calls come from girls, often in response to relentless texting or efforts by boys to dictate what they do or wear.
While texting that runs to 200 or 300 messages a day can be a prelude to abusive behavior, William S. Pollack, a Harvard University psychologist and the author of “Real Boys” (1998) and “Real Boys’ Voices” (2000) about boys and masculinity, said his research had found that “usually when adolescent boys get involved with girls, they fall into the societal model which we call ‘macho,’ where they need to show they are the ones in control.”
Actions like nonstop texting or phoning often are efforts “to gain control back,” said Dr. Pollack, who is the director of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Reacting to the killings of Heather Norris and other girls by their romantic partners, Indianapolis recently started a program to train police officers in public schools to recognize the early signs of abuse in relationships. Last month, a group of Indianapolis organizations won a $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help schools tackle the issue, part of $18 million in grants to 10 communities to help break patterns where children exposed to violence at home repeat it in their adult relationships.
The foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., decided to fund preventive efforts based on research, including from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. In the C.D.C.’s 2007 survey of 15,000 adolescents, 10 percent reported physical abuse like being hit or slapped by a romantic partner. Nearly 8 percent of teenagers in the survey said they were forced to have sexual intercourse.
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Rhode Island now teaches students about dating abuse after Lindsay Ann Burke’s killing.
Dating abuse victims, the center found, are more likely to engage in binge drinking, suicide attempts, physical fights and sexual activity. And the rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use are more than twice as high in abused girls as in other girls the same age.
“Few adolescents understand what a healthy relationship looks like,” Dr. Miller said.
Adolescents often mistake the excessive attention of boys as an expression of love, she said.
Kayla Brown, 18, was among them. At first, her high school boyfriend made a great impression last year when he “called my mother to introduce himself,” said Ms. Brown, a senior at an Indianapolis charter school.
Then he began “calling me every hour to see where I was and what I was doing,” she said. Finally, during an argument he slammed a chair into a cafeteria table and raised his fist.
She confided in her mother, who has suffered domestic violence, and followed her advice to break off the relationship. But it was not easy. For months, she had friends accompany her in the school hallways, even to the bathroom, to make sure she was not alone with him.
Deborah Norris, Heather Norris’s mother, said her daughter’s relationship with Joshua Bean also began innocuously but rapidly became threatening.
“When he would call or text her, she had to answer right away or there was trouble,” Ms. Norris said. “She became quiet and withdrawn around him, and that wasn’t like her.”
“She hadn’t seen him in four months,” she added, “and was getting ready to go to court because she had filed battery charges against him.”
Mr. Bean was convicted in Heather’s killing last September.
Ms. Norris, an accident investigator for the police, said, “What happened to Heather really opened the eyes of police, the people I work with, who used to look at domestic violence differently,” seeing it as a family matter.
What happened to Heather before she was killed is common in abusive relationships, said Stephanie Berry, the manager of community health at Clarian Health, a network of Indiana hospitals, which is leading the program being financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Many teenagers, Ms. Berry said, “see the jealousy and protectiveness as ‘Oh, he loves me so much.’ Girls make excuses for it and don’t realize it’s not about love, but it’s about controlling you as a possession.”
For Ms. Berry, 43, the issue is personal. Her high school boyfriend “wanted a commitment right away, which was very flattering,” she said. But she soon found herself “walking on eggshells,” she said.
Even after he went to college, she said, the relationship was so “addictive” that she kept returning — until it “turned violent and he beat me up when I was 21.”
A study, published last July in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, suggests that such behavior is not unusual. The study found that more than one-third of the 920 students questioned were victims of emotional and physical abuse by romantic partners before they started college.
The Indianapolis program will train older teenagers as mentors and teachers, coaches and parents as “influencers” who will talk to sixth, seventh and eighth graders about what is acceptable behavior in dating.
In her grief, Ms. Norris created heathersvoice.net to help girls learn when things are amiss in a relationship. “Heather always thought she could change people,” she said, “so I guess I’m trying to follow what she wanted.”
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