It’s happening in Marshalltown — February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

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AP PHOTO In this 2011 file photo, decorated T-shirts hang during Barry University’s College Brides Walk, to bring awareness of domestic and dating violence in Miami. According to the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence, which is federally funded, a majority of boys and girls describe themselves as both victims and perpetrators of abusive dating behavior.
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By Lana Bradstream, Times-Republican

A number of youth have experienced and are going through the unfortunate reality of teenage dating violence. Thus, in 2010, the United States Congress declared February to be Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 12 teens experience physical dating violence, and another one in 12 go through sexual violence. Unfortunately, it is not widely reported, and it is happening in Marshalltown. 

ACCESS (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support) and the Marshalltown Police Department are two agencies which are raising awareness while on the front lines of teen dating violence. ACCESS Domestic Abuse Supervisor Kristina Griego said the violence has always been happening. People just are not talking about it. Since Griego started working for ACCESS in 2012, she said teen dating violence has unfortunately not gotten better. 

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“It is not a conversation we want to have,” she said.

“It’s the ugly side of the world. It’s been a problem for quite some time.” 

MPD Lt. Sadie Weekley said the department, on average, works a handful of cases every year. However, like with most domestic violence cases, teen dating violence is widely underreported.

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“We know it’s happening, we just don’t see the reports,” Weekley said. “I feel like that is for a couple different reasons. There could be many reasons why it’s not reported. One could be the players — the teens don’t know it’s not okay, or they’re not comfortable reporting it.”

Red flags

Griego said violence and abuse is interchangeable. She has seen verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, psychological and physical violence in teen cases. Most of the time, Griego said it does not start with physical, but escalates to that. It starts with grooming, gaslighting, manipulation, coercion and isolation.

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“There is no textbook case,” she said. “There is a victim, and an abuser, and I hate using those words because they are still kids. 

Weekley said some of the red flags, such as gaslighting, might seem attractive in the beginning. Gaslighting occurs when certain behavior is brought up, and the abuser turns it around on the victim, telling the victim they are responsible for what happened. 

“I feel like we’re seeing those earlier in relationships, and in younger people than we have in the past,” she said. 

One red flag Weekley said people should look for is controlling behavior — the abuser tells the victim where they can go, how they should dress. Another is the threat of suicide or self-harm or acts of violence against the victim’s family. Also, watch for accusations of cheating when none is occurring.

“Those are the red flags in a relationship we tell teens to look out for,” Weekley said. “Those behaviors are unhealthy and they should try to leave that relationship.”

A big red flag is isolating the girlfriend or boyfriend, not allowing them to hang out with other friends or family. Griego said isolation happens because the abuser believes the victim is solely for them only. When a person is pulled from family or friends, and becomes centered around the abuser, it is toxic, she said. It is also not healthy for the abuser. An example might be if a girl speaks to her brother’s friend to get a ride after school. The boyfriend then becomes upset that she spoke to another boy and throws her books.

“[He says] ‘Look what you made me do because you talked to him,’” Griego said. “The victim then feels guilty for talking to that person.” 

Learned behavior

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According to Griego, the abuser is displaying learned behavior, and is as much of a victim. Because of that, she feels differently about teen abusers and believes they can be saved.

“They’re not fully mature and are more open-minded,” she said.

Griego does not like the term “change” when asked if abusers can do so, but believes they can grow up. She said there have been cases where the victim has stayed with the abuser and they have learned from their experiences and grown together. 

“Youth are more capable of growing up,” she said. “They are able to grow out of the behaviors.”

A victim staying with the abuser is common. Weekley said, on average, it takes seven break-ups before the relationship is permanently ended. 

“We see it quite often,” she said. “It can be very hard for a victim to leave someone they care about. It’s hard to walk away.”

Weekley said when a victim leaves the abuser is the most dangerous time. Sometimes the victim does not make the choice because of increased danger. 

“It can be frustrating,” she said. “But I think we are doing a better job, working with ACCESS and they help us learn the reasons why victims stay.”

According to Griego, teenagers feel love, hurt, trauma all at once. They don’t know why they want to be with the person who has hurt them.

“They’re not able to separate these emotions,” she said. “It’s overwhelming their brain. [They] want to go to [their] support system, which is [their] abuser. When you were isolated, you depended on them for so long, they’re familiar. You want to go to them.”

Griego said the relationships have many “honeymoon phases,” also known as “puppy love.” There is abuse, feelings of fright or anger, an apology, acceptance, then a dopamine flood.

“It’s like a high for both the victim and the abuser,” she said. “They get this honeymoon phase again, they get that high. It’s a continuous circle.”

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Social media

Social media plays a huge role in teen dating violence. 

“[The abuser] might be sharing or threatening to share pictures of the partner if they break up,” Weekley said. “We see that more than actual physical violence.”

Griego said social media behavior can make a situation more severe. Sometimes the victim makes the decision to leave, but the abuser wants to hold onto the control and power, which is when online stalking, harassing and bullying becomes prevalent. Sometimes the abuser is the only one engaging in online harassment. Other times, the abuser gets others involved.

“[The victim] can block a number, but there are apps [the abuser] can download to harass again,” Griego said. “I’ve heard of mothers contacting the victims, and saying ‘I can’t believe you left him. He really needed you.’ We need to recognize that social media plays a large part.”

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