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"Educating our communities and elected officials about the needs of survivors in our local cities and towns requires year round focus. JDI is our pathway to informing and influencing the state and national agenda to end sexual and domestic violence." ~ Karen Cavanaugh, JDI board member and Executive Director of Womanshelter/Companeras, pictured here with a JDI delegation meeting with Congressman Niki Tsongas

Somerville group battles teen domestic violence

By Corinne Segal

On the surface, things seem fine. When asked about teen domestic violence, Somerville police and school administrators said they have few reports of such incidents.

But unfortunately, that is in line with victims underreporting a growing problem, according to city
domestic violence assistance advocates.

“We’re seeing more teens calling our hotline,” said Jessica Brayden, executive director of
RESPOND.  RESPOND, which provides counseling and shelter to victims of domestic abuse, has been spreading
awareness of teen domestic violence over the past month. In 2012, RESPOND received 112 calls to
their hotline from teenagers out of almost 2500 total calls, Brayden said.

And she said those numbers are likely low compared to reality. The federal Center for Disease Control reports that one in 11 high school students have been “purposefully hit” by their partner, and but the numbers are probably higher, Brayden said.

“That’s a key statistic we’re all kind of clinging to,” Brayden said. “If one in 10 are reporting, we
have a significantly bigger problem.”

Even as teenagers are calling RESPOND, Somerville police have almost never received reports of
teenage dating violence in the last two years, according to Sergeant Richard Lavey, a detective for
the Family Services Unit.

“I can’t tell you when I had the last one,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve had any direct
disclosures from children.”  Lavey does not remember receiving a report from a teenager, he said.
“I just don’t know that the people alleging [dating] violence are people of high school age,” Lavey
said.

The Somerville Police Department does not track statistics on the frequency of teenage dating
violence because reports are so infrequent, Sergeant John Aufiero said.  “We don’t really have a lot of reports of it,” he said. “That’s probably why we don’t keep numbers of it.”

Brayden said RESPOND has “a very, very good relationship, a longstanding partnership with the Somerville Police Department,” but it’s not surprising that police receive few reports because teenage dating violence victims often do not report incidents for fear of punishment or social humiliation. She referred to a 2008 study sponsored by Liz Claiborne, Inc. that found 20 percent of 13-14-year-olds reported knowing a peer who has been physically struck by a partner, but only 54 percent of 11-14-year-olds said they would know how to help a friend in that situation.

RESPOND tries to counter that by reaching out to Somerville High School students through presentations and in lunchrooms. Students can sometimes be reluctant to talk, but will often call the hotline for advice after RESPOND visits the school, Brayden said. “Our goal is to let them know that there is a resource there,” she said.

The Somerville High School administration does not often receive reports of dating violence among students, according to Headmaster John Oteri, and incidents of reported abuse usually involve an abuser who is not a Somerville High School student.  “It’s very infrequent,” he said.   Somerville Somerville schools educate students on self-empowerment and how to identify teenage dating violence, and students should feel comfortable coming forward if they need help, according to Oteri.

“I think we’ve created a system and a culture here where we encourage kids to report,” he said. “We have a lot of support services here that kids utilize.”

Few legal options
Domestic violence, which includes dating violence, comprises a pattern of control, according to Jenny Efimova, outreach manager for Casa Myrna, a Boston-based group that advocates for domestic abuse victims.
“It’s a pattern of behavior within a relationship where one person tries to gain and maintain control over the other,” Efimova said.

Abuse from one partner to another can be physical or emotional, and is not the victim’s fault, Brayden said.
State laws do not always address the issue of teen dating violence. Not all states include dating relationships in their legal definition of domestic abuse, leaving teenagers less legally protected, according to LoveIsRespect.org.

Minors in Massachusetts cannot legally file a restraining order without the aid of their parent or guardian, leaving teenagers who do not confide in their parents with fewer legal options. Teenagers may not report incidents because they do not want their parents to find out, Lavey said.

[NOTE:  JDI offers a clarification: A judge may request that a parent or guardian be present, can decide to appoint someone else to represent a minor in court, or can decide to proceed without notifiying parent or guardian if you appear to be in danger.]

Most laws on teen dating violence relate to education; a 2010 Massachusetts law mandates that public schools create guidelines for addressing teen dating violence. Five states have bills pending in Congress that would improve education on dating violence in public school systems.

A national bill, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, outlined a comprehensive federal plan for sexual education in public schools; it died in Congress in 2011. Schools need to educate children on safe sexual practices to prevent violence in the future, according to Toni Troop, director of communications for Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts advocacy organization against sexual and domestic violence.

“If we don’t talk about healthy [sexuality and healthy relationships], we are never going to be able to prevent domestic and teen dating violence,” she said.

Victims of dating violence can anonymously receive counseling and advice on RESPOND’s hotline and in their shelter. RESPOND serves any victim unconditionally, including people of all genders and sexual identities; anyone can use their crisis hotline as a resource, including parents, teachers, and police officers, Brayden said. RESPOND’s 24-hour crisis hotline number is 617-623-5900.


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