Fate by association
Peers, mentors are key to breaking patterns of domestic abuse
By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer
Advocates' interns pulled these statistics together to illustrate the facts about teens and dating violence. Photo by courtesy photo
Third in a three-part series about the challenges of being a teen in the Wood River Valley.
Condition a child through criticism or circumstance to believe she or he is not worthy and you can nearly guarantee a Pavlovian-like internal magnet will form, drawing that person through a life that seems to inexplicably careen from one bad situation to another.
Unless, that is, someone steps up to interrupt the force. And those in the business of stopping the cycles that take children from “resilient” babes to adults in crisis say peers and mentors can be the most powerful influences in a child’s life.
Positive influences, however, are in increasingly short supply. Economic conditions have reduced the availability of more mature people to guide because they are too busy treading water themselves. Classrooms are filled with children from dicey home situations coaching each other from their warped and immature world views.
Express graphic by Erik Elison
This community is fortunate to have multiple mentoring organizations not just holding out a net to catch what they can, but also anticipating issues before they are fully realized.
But rather than merely lead and educate, resources such as Planned Parenthood, the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition and The Advocates are establishing teen advisory councils and boards to collect their valuable perspectives and take their information into the field.
These youth peer panels are revealing a willingness to apply the same fervor to interpersonal empowerment as their predecessors and friends have been to be champions for the environment or against hunger.
They are the youngest experts to challenge negative patterns of thinking in the spirit of a mission that states, “Each day, we are presented with the choice to speak out, to make a difference, to change a life.”
The teen-driven Our Revolution is taking on dating violence with that rallying cry.
Nature versus nurture
The Advocates has spent more than two decades in the valley picking up the pieces of missed interventions and the resulting aftermath.
Nearly one-third of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their life.
“National statistics are that one in three dating teens will be in an emotionally, verbally or physically abusive relationship, and our valley is right on track with national statistics,” said Darrel Harris, coordinator of social change for The Advocates. “Teen dating abuse is epidemic. Some researchers are calling it the No. 1 health concern in our country. That may or may not be true, but it is the one health concern that we can absolutely do something about with information and education.”
What is often seen in shelters worldwide is a pattern of violence that starts very young and morphs into a tolerance for a life built on shattered dreams, self-sabotage, violence, sexual abuse, bullying and/or self-imposed exile through substance abuse.
What is known is that a seemingly unfettered child isn’t always a romantic free spirit, or that a rootless adult isn’t just a commitmentphobe. There is usually an unresolved grief or unchallenged interpretation of an event deemed, consciously or not, to be traumatic.
It could be from an emotional or physical trauma, untreated mental-health matter, familial dysfunction or other disillusionment.
In many cases, just as the person was forming, and filling his or her unscathed vessels with all the good things that newness to the world brings, something dreadful happened.
In an instant, everything was the same, and nothing was. And how that moment was handled can determine whether one learns and grows, or merely survives.
Self-esteem is as stretchy and pliable as a Slinky, but left to its own devices, just like the toy’s tail follows the head whichever way has the least resistance, it is, too often, down.
Culturally, teens receive mixed and confusing messages about relationships. Teens get many of their ideas about what relationships are supposed to be, and their social emotional skills are influenced by, peers and media, Harris said.
“Teens often have innocent ideas about what relationships are, buy into gender stereotypes, and do not know what a healthy relationship looks, sounds and feels like,” she said. “Research shows that the vast majority of teens can name the warning signs of abuse but cannot identify the components of a healthy relationship.
“Teen dating abuse, like all forms of power-based personal violence, is about power and control.”
Interestingly, unlike adult domestic violence, teen boys and girls are equally abusive. Statistically, boys are more physically and sexually abusive and girls are more emotionally and verbally abusive.
“But, all forms of violence and abuse are destructive and damaging,” Harris said.
Repair or repeat
“I was set up to be abused from the time I was a young girl,” said Lara Spencer, a businesswoman and advocate as well as an addict in recovery and a survivor of domestic violence. “It starts with a little tear-down and evolves into a beat-down.”
She was the daughter of a prominent Alaskan businessman and, as such, like her mother and brother, she absorbed the nicks from her abusive father and kept them secret, because of shame and bewilderment as well as his prominence in her town. So she did what many young kids with too much time and too few answers do—she partied.
“I had to escape and I covered up my pain.”
Thanks to tenacity and punk rock, the young Spencer went on to graduate from Seattle Pacific University with a focus on fashion. But her success only dressed up her scars, and, privately, her history of abuse continued with her relationships with men.
She married her last abuser, still in a haze of addiction clothed in ambition.
An E.R. nurse connected the dots after seeing Spencer more than a few times, the latest when her lover had smashed her head on a toilet. The nurse gave her some contacts and her husband was sent to jail.
Spencer became a case study for a Swedish Medical Center. Their plan was to observe what happens when a person comes back from near death and is given all the support and options and information available to change.
After being released from jail, her husband came for her a year into her recovery, and when rejected, he left her a cyanide-laced drink to toast his death, and took his own life. Because they were still married, she was made responsible for his burial.
The brutal realization was enough to keep her on course to break her own patterns. A letter from her niece in 2006 turned her into a warrior for the cause.
From a simple note
“Dear Aunt Lara, there are no cool clothes here and people tell me I’m ugly and I want to kill myself,” Spencer recalled, paraphrasing the note. The writer’s father, Spencer’s brother, was working at the Community School, a widower with a seventh-grade daughter struggling without her mother.
Spencer was by then the merchandise coordinator and manager for the Seattle Mariners baseball team. Her past had long since been reconciled, but her experience instantly set her on high alert.
“I knew exactly what that was because I was that child,” she said. “I knew that was not a joke, that the possibilities were more than great that she was either going to do drugs and alcohol or date an abusive man. I gave all my tangibles up for a spiritual solution. It was a no-brainer—I was going to break that cycle.”
Spencer said her time spent in consignment stores provided the platform for a vision that she hammered over in her mind as she made her way to Ketchum three weeks after getting the note.
She would create The Dollhouse, a hub for girls and women to dress their outsides to match their insides.
She went to The Advocates, and in her founding mission statement for the shop was a promise to make the organization a beneficiary of donated clothing.
While working on her family’s stuff, she was growing in her local advocacy. The Advocates asked her to serve on the board of directors.
Back then, Harris was looking for ways to reach youth with The Advocates’ services, which at that time was largely in reactive and re-entry mode.
In the meantime, Spencer would provide the clients with personal testimony and create a haven for nurturing confidence for women starting over by using her talents and her torments for change for others.
Last summer, her niece, now a college graduate who doesn’t smoke or drink, came for a visit with a gentleman of a boyfriend en route to service work in South Korea.
“My job was to break the cycle—we broke the cycle,” Spencer said.
Her mission complete, the “miracles,” as she calls them, keep coming.
And despite a few moves of the business, and some harrowing financial times, things are happening from her little Hailey shop that confirms she’s in it for the long run.
Can we use your shop?
In late winter, two young women walked into The Dollhouse explaining an internship they were starting with The Advocates. They wanted to hold an event there to introduce a new teen-empowerment program to the community.
Spencer, of course, was on board. Revolutionary acts of healing were committed—young men and women celebrated together.
Spencer gave a speech that ended with the message, “Right now, you are the solution. As long as you are standing there, you are healing others.”
The attendees were likewise enthused, leaving evidence of their spirits in messages on a white board.
The internship launch party was part of a social movement created by teens from the Center for Healthy Relationships, a branch of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Social movements, Harris said, “often begin with conversations—conversations among everyday people about the change they want to see in their own lives, their communities, and the world, and this is what Our Revolution is all about.”
The goal of the Our Revolution conversation is to empower teens to raise their voice and be the change they want to see.
The Every Teen Has a Choice (or ETC) interns have been introducing the Our Revolution conversation to their peers, spreading messages about what healthy relationships look like.
They are assisting The Advocates in eighth-grade health classes, helping middle-schoolers identify important components of healthy relationships and think about their boundaries. They are also providing tools to be able to communicate those things.
“Study after study show that teens are more likely to listen to other teens, and that is why we created the ETC group,” Harris said. “The ETCs not only gain personal and professional skills from their work experience with The Advocates, they make our prevention education work more effective and spread positive behaviors among their peers. Our weekly conversations spread from inside the walls of our office to the schools, to the soccer fields.”
Harris’ co-mentor, Heidi Cook, gave a talk recently to high-school-age kids about the terms of consent. Their responses indicated that traditional views believed long abandoned are still alive:
l Regarding a scenario in which a boy forced a girl to have sex after she says no.
“Well, she shouldn’t have let him pay for lunch. If she wouldn’t have led him on, she wouldn’t have gotten herself in this situation.”
l To “no means no,” and only an enthusiastic “yes” by both parties is consent.
A girl offered, “They may say, ‘no, no, no,’ but girls are always just playing hard to get.”
l Boys can’t be sexually assaulted and no cop would believe them if they said they were.
“It wouldn’t be rape, it would be, like, ‘Thank you,’” said a boy.
l What is rape then?
“Rape is when someone in a white van comes and snatches you up.”
The students were shocked to find out that 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. And the responses establish a need for a call to action and conversation, to take a step toward a compassionate community free of violence and abuse. And it illustrates, painfully, how it is something that must be taught and modeled.
Teens are coming to the ETCs and asking questions about abusive relationships or asking whom they should go to talk to.
“We have had students, referred by the ETC, come talk to us about their relationships,” Harris said. “The ETCs are changing the language they use and their peers are taking notice. One ETC says his football and lacrosse teammates know that he disapproves of any derogatory talk about women and they have stopped using that language, or at least using it around him.”
Support comes from many places
“We do not just shop in here, we experience,” Spencer said. She refers to her customers as “dolls” and offers a healthy dose of “you’re more than OK.”
“It’s a place to cry, hug, share and heal. It’s possible. It’s so possible. I am not a victim, I am a possibility.”
You are who you date
- Domestic violence can happen to anyone—it doesn’t matter how much money people make, how much education they have, what race they are or what religion they believe in.
- Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their life. (Source: Commonwealth Fund survey, 1998.)
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, more common than automobile accidents, muggings and cancer deaths combined. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1990.)
- It is estimated that 503,485 women are stalked by an intimate partner each year in the United States. (National Institute of Justice, July 2000.)
- 1,247 women and 440 men were killed by an intimate partner in 2000. That equals four deaths per day due to domestic violence. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, February 2003.)
- While women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner. (U.S. Department of Justice, 1998.)
- The prevalence of domestic violence among gay and lesbian couples is approximately 25-33 percent. (Barnes, “It’s Just a Quarrel,” American Bar Association Journal, February 1998, p. 25.)
- Each year, between 50,000 and 100,000 lesbian women and as many as 500,000 gay men are battered. (Murphy, “Queer Justice: Equal Protection for Victims of Same-Sex Domestic Violence,” 30 Val. U. L. Rev. 335 (1995).)
- For more statistics on domestic violence, visit the Family Violence Prevention Fund: http://www.endabuse.org/resources/facts/.
- An estimated one out of every five children and adolescents has a mental-health disorder, with about 11 percent of youth between the ages of 9 and 17 having a major mental-health disorder. Ninety percent of people who develop a mental disorder show warning signs during their teen years. (National Alliance on Mental Illness.)