Karla Cruz, a high school senior in San Bernardino County, remembers thinking there was something off about the boyfriend of one of her classmates, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
The boyfriend was jealous and possessive, said Karla, who is 17. He would get mad if her classmate even looked at another boy, and he pushed her to purge her social media accounts of all male friends. Some students thought the behavior was cute, a sign of how much the boy loved his girlfriend. But to Karla, the actions were troubling.
Her suspicions were confirmed when a representative from a local domestic violence services provider called the House of Ruth came to the high school to give a presentation on teen dating violence. Karla recognized the behavior she’d witnessed as a sign of dating abuse.
“I kind of felt there was something wrong about the guy, but I never knew that it was toxic,” she said.”I didn’t even realize (dating abuse) was common because I was so stuck in my bubble.”
Dating violence among teens and young adults is very common, according to experts. One in three teens in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, statistics show. Among girls and young women, the rate of intimate partner violence is almost triple the national average for all age groups and genders. Yet the problem is often overlooked and many young people experiencing this type of abuse don’t know where to turn, advocates said.
In California, a new bill signed into law last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom could help change that. Starting in January, the law will require all ID badges for students in seventh through 12th grades and in higher education institutions to carry the National Domestic Violence Hotline number, or that of a local domestic violence hotline. Students can call the number, 1-800-799-7233, to receive confidential support and be connected with resources in their area. The hotline also has an online chat option.
“We were really excited to see that go into place,” said Miranda Stiers, capacity-building program specialist with the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “Historically there haven’t been a lot of (intimate partner violence) resources for youth, or even spaces to talk about what they’re experiencing.”
Alejandra Becerril,who works for House of Ruth and gives presentations on teen dating violence, such as the one at Karla’s high school, agreed that putting the hotline number on student ID badges is necessary. Close to 80 percent of the middle and high-school students she surveys report that they or someone they know has experienced some form of dating violence.
Abuse is sometimes physical: She’s heard reports of a student setting a partner’s car on fire, and of a young girl killed by a jealous boyfriend. More often, the abuse is emotional, verbal or social. These categories include boyfriends or girlfriends who speak degradingly to their partners, are emotionally manipulative, or isolate their partners from family and friends. Stalking a partner using technology and social media is also very common among teens and is a sign of abuse, Becerril said.
Dating violence “is more common than a lot of teens believe it is,” she said. “It can be really subtle and may seem innocent at first, but as time goes on (the abuser) won’t want you around your own friends. That’s something we see is very common among teens. Their partner gets angry or upset if they chose to hang out with their friends instead of them.”
Often teens suffering dating abuse fear that adults won’t take the problem seriously. Having the hotline number on their ID cards lets students know there are resources available to help them, Becerril said.
For Karla, addressing teen dating violence has become a passion. She now helps educate other students on the signs and dangers of dating abuse, and is the president of House of Ruth’s Youth Advisory Committee.
Karla said she was able to help her classmate end her abusive relationship. Now, she’s hopeful even more teens will get help once they become aware of the hotline number.
“I feel like it’s important to address teen dating violence because it’s an ongoing cycle,” she said, referencing research that shows that children who grow up witnessing abuse in their homes are more likely to experience abuse as an adult or become abusers themselves. “We need to break the cycle. … That’s what motivates me: change.”