A third of teens report encountering some form of abuse in their romantic relationships, including verbal and emotional abuse, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. American Journal of Public Health, and each year, approximately 1.5 million high school students in the U.S. experience interpersonal violence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes. Many appear “happy in public,” but their relationship might be dramatically different behind closed doors.
To kick-off Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM), held in February, The Retreat, the East End’s sole domestic violence agency, welcomed survivor and community member Kim Jones who spoke with a group of The Retreat Teen Leader Project members. Ms. Jones bravely relayed her own experience as a teen, sharing her past to give the East End high school students a firsthand account that covered all of the stages of abuse: the early signs, red flags, being a victim, and being a survivor. She also spoke about finding supportive services.
“The goal of The Retreat Teen Leadership Project is to ‘prevent abuse’ and ‘promote respect’ in all relationships throughout our community,” Helen Atkinson-Barnes, The Retreat Education Program Director, noted.
While the abuse was occurring no one in Ms. Jones’ life was aware of what was going on. She didn’t inform her parents or friends, but does believe that some people must have observed the public incidents, which included choking and screaming, or the noticeable bruises on her face, but they remained silent. Their silence diminished the gravity of the situation for Ms. Jones and normalized it.
In addition to sharing her story, she also invited the youth to pose any questions that they had. Ms. Jones’ reflection, at times emotional, allowed the teens to learn about the struggle to heal from abuse and that the experience stays with survivors for many years.
Ms. Jones initially decided to share her story because she thinks that the teens are great ambassadors for The Retreat’s supportive services because they initiate dialogue with members of their communities. The teens were given the chance to reflect upon their time with Ms. Jones and their responses included: “people don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, just because a couple looks happy doesn’t mean that they are in a healthy relationship, loving should never hurt, it takes a lot to fully break free from an abusive relationship, don’t be afraid to ask for help in any situation, abuse can begin verbally, the trauma can last for many years, domestic violence isn’t over once the person leaves the relationship, abuse is more common than it seems, and abuse can seem normal to some families.”
TDVAM provides the opportunity for schools, the community, teens, and parents to discuss the issue of dating violence, learn about prevention, and offer resources to those that need it.
“Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is important as it highlights a crucial and often overlooked issue,” Atkinson-Barnes explained. “The Center for Disease Control considers abuse in relationships a public health epidemic, with studies showing that 1 in 3 teens has been subjected to abuse in relationships. One of the reasons people aren’t aware of how common a problem it is is that people aren’t talking about it.”
To raise awareness of TDVAM The Retreat is presenting “In Their Shoes: Teens and Dating Violence,” a program that utilizes an engaging method of discussing dating violence as well as healthy relationships with young people. The workshops will be held at the Hampton Bays Library on Monday, February 4, Riverhead Library on Tuesday, February 5 and East Hampton Library on Thursday, February 7. The events will give participates the chance to see how they would react in situations that real teens face – such as sexting, pregnancy, homophobia, and stalking. To sign up, visit www.theretreatinc.org.
“We use experiential activities, multi-media, and discussion to explore what is healthy and what is unhealthy in relationships,” Atkinson-Barnes added. “We are pleased to partner with our Teen Leadership Project students who help us understand a youth perspective, and also help The Retreat connect throughout the community.”
“Often those subjected to abuse are afraid, embarrassed, or concerned about getting the person they care about and/or depend on in trouble. In addition, especially for teens, abuse in relationships has been normalized,” Atkinson-Barnes said. “One of our primary prevention efforts is to help teens recognize the ‘red flags’ or warning signs of abuse, which often masquerade as signs of romance, like jealousy, constant togetherness, assumption that a dating partner should ‘share everything’ – including passwords, access to phone, social media accounts, and location tracking apps.”
Also as part of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, The Retreat is participating in #Orange4Love (on Tuesday, February 12), a national day of awareness where all are invited to don orange in honor of TDVAM. SHAPE (Sexual Harassment and Prevention Education), a collaboration between The Retreat and the Hampton Bays Library, will screen Let’s Talk About It on Tuesday, February 12 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The one-hour documentary follows the lives of children survivors of domestic abuse. After the film, there will be a discussion.
Since it was established The Retreat has assisted over 6,000 individuals. Services offered include a 24-hour bilingual hotline, counseling, legal advocacy, prevention education, and emergency shelter. In 2017 alone, The Retreat reached 5,702 students with prevention education and responded to 3,467 hotline calls.
For more information about The Retreat, visit www.theretreatinc.org.