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Curbing the Violence

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"Adolescents don't have the same protective factors as adults, and are at even greater risk for violence," says Abigail Sims, the In Touch with Teens program coordinator at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, one of the earliest programs to address teen dating violence. "The girls don't fit a profile. They are not weak, submissive girls. Sometimes they even hit back."

A misperception exists that victims of dating violence come from abusive homes. Experts say that nearly half of teenage girls in abusive relationships have never witnessed violence at home and often come from educated, middle- or upper-class homes. While studies do reveal huge variations depending on the population sampled and the exact definition of abuse, it is considered reasonable to estimate that at least 25% of teenagers will experience dating violence.

"There is huge social pressure to be in a heterosexual relationship on every high school campus I've been on," says Sims. "Teens have it difficult because the opinions of their peer group are so important to them. Teens also have less experience. They might not know what is inappropriate. Even with a healthy family, parents might not have sat them down, saying what to expect out of a relationship."

Targeting prevention efforts at teenagers seems a natural part of the movement to combat violence in the home, a movement that began more than 30 years ago. Early efforts have included responses such as shelters for battered women and rape crisis centers. Sims says advocates realized they had to "go further upstream" and educate women sooner. The first such programs began around 10 years ago, but there has been a national push in the last five years to reach adolescents.

"There is a lot of stigma and shame being in an abusive relationship," says Barri Rosenbluth, director of school-based services at Safe Place in Austin, Texas, which runs "Expect Respect," a school-based prevention and intervention program. "Girls will say, 'I would never be with somebody who would hit me.' If it happened on the first date, they probably wouldn't. But if they have a lot committed to the relationship, like they have already had sex, they feel like they have a lot to lose."

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