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Study: More than a third of teens are victims of abuse

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 11:10 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 11:12 p.m. CDT

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Shortly after the news broke in July of a domestic murder-suicide in Harvard, Molly Horton sat with her teen group trying to find the right thing to say.

The details were mind-boggling: Miguel Andrade, a 19-year-old, had entered the home of the 17-year-old mother of his child, Jackie Flores, in the early morning of July 25. He demanded to see their 9-month-old baby, police say, and while Flores’ mother fled with the child, Andrade shot Flores once in the home.

He then chased her through the neighborhood, catching her in a neighbor’s backyard and shooting her again, this time fatally, before turning the .22-caliber revolver on himself.

How do you make sense of that? Horton, children’s advocate at Turning Point of McHenry County, a domestic violence agency, had to try because she was leading a group of people about Flores’ age who were either victims of domestic violence themselves or had seen it up close.

“I had nothing to say, no way to explain it,” Horton remembered. “And I had girls say, ‘That could have been me. That easily could have been me.’ ”

In retrospect, the Harvard incident validates the seriousness of teen dating violence.

According to a recent study by the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, 41 percent of females and 37 percent of males, ages 14 to 20, reported experience as a victim of dating violence either psychologically, physically or sexually.

It’s an issue made complicated, Horton said, by a couple of factors working against teens. The system tends to be set up to help adults, and it can be tougher for teens to get help, as they generally need parental permission to seek counseling at a place such as Turning Point or to pursue some sort of legal action, she said.

Earning that parental support isn’t always easy.

“A lot of times, parents aren’t going to be willing to view it as a problem, can’t afford help, are embarrassed about what happened, or maybe they’re friends with the parents of the abuser,” Horton said. “If a teen is in a relationship and maybe reaches out to a teacher or reaches out to a parent, and they’re just set aside ... if that happens to me, I’m not going to want to talk to someone else. You shut me down because of my age.”

Like domestic violence of all kinds, teen dating violence can be tough to define. Stopping the pattern of abuse before it takes the step toward physical is key, but knowing just when to seek help is an issue many teens struggle with.

Abuse can present itself in many ways, but teens should keep an eye out for behaviors in their partners that are obsessive, or aim to isolate them from friends and family or to control their lives, Horton said. And those behaviors often are exhibited both online or in person.

Often, teens view jealousy in their partners as a desirable trait – validation that he or she cares. But the controlling traits can lead to something more serious, said Melissa McGraw, coordinator of the partner abuse intervention program at Turning Point.

“It starts [with subtlety], that’s the thing people don’t understand,” McGraw said. “It starts with all that attention and then it crosses a line. A lot of abuse is identifying what your boundaries are.”

McGraw works with the perpetrators of domestic violence, gaining referrals from court orders or from schools where the violence takes place.

Her goal is to stop – or at least slow – the cycle. While Turning Point’s shelter and group therapy sessions focus mainly on victims and how to help them move on, those victims often report that their former, abusive partners have moved on to a new relationship and have continued to be abusive.

During sessions with perpetrators, McGraw tries to focus on the nonphysical abuse.

“Take the physical out, what about the nonstop emails all day and night. What about the name calling, or the nonstop criticisms, or criticizing her family and friends, which is really a way to isolate somebody,” McGraw said.

“A lot of the guys in our program, they haven’t been physically abusive, or maybe it only did happen a few times. But we try to look underneath that,” she continued. “And most of them, that’s a hard pill to swallow because they want to identify abuse as physical.”

Stopping the abuse early in a relationship is key because it tends to snowball into something more serious.

In Harvard, Andrade had a warrant out for his arrest when he killed Flores and then himself. He’d threatened to kill her in January, and after missing a court date, a warrant was issued in early May.

The relationship between the two had grown distant not long after, police say.

“It had been an on-and-off-again relationship, but in the last four or five months there hadn’t been any sort of relationship whatsoever,” Harvard Police Chief Dan Kazy-Garey said.

Kazy-Garey said that while it’s rare that these sorts of relationships devolve into a tragedy like that of Andrade and Flores, it’s important for parents to realize just how serious abuse can be at a young age.

“Parents need to take those relationships seriously where there’s indicators of jealousy, indicators of abuse, indicators of possessiveness,” he said.

Like Horton, McGraw used the incident to spark a discussion among her group of perpetrators. At least, she tried.

“The guys that week were very quiet,” she said.

How to get help

Victims of teen dating violence can call the McHenry County domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-892-8900, or the national hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. If individuals are unsure whether they should take that step, experts suggest talking to parents, friends or school counselors about the problems they’re facing.

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