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Stay vigilant for violence in dating

It’s been two years since Heather’s Law went into effect in Indiana, requiring the state Department of Education to develop or identify educational material to teach teens about dating violence.

The law was named for Heather Norris, a 20-year-old Indianapolis woman who was stabbed to death and dismembered by her estranged high school boyfriend.

Heather’s mother, Deb Norris, helped champion the law, hoping that signs of abusive relationships will be caught early enough to avoid a repeat of what happened to her family.

Twenty states now have laws about dating violence. Sadly, several are named after a young woman who was targeted if not murdered. In Ohio, protective orders can now be issued for minors in an abusive relationship. This change was inspired in part by Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teen-ager who was shot in the face by her ex-boyfriend. (Johanna told her story at the YWCA Northeast Indiana’s Circle of Women luncheon last November.)

One in three adolescents in the U.S. will be a victim of physical, emotional or sexual abuse from a dating partner. Nearly 80 percent of girls who have been physically abused in their intimate relationships continue to date their abuser. About two-thirds of teens who are in an abusive relationship never tell anyone.

Aside from physical harm, violent relationships put adolescents at risk for substance abuse, eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors.

Healthy or unhealthy relationships develop early, with the majority of eighth- and ninth-graders reporting that they are dating. Destructive relationships during the teen years can lead to lifelong unhealthy relationship patterns.

The YWCA Northeast Indiana helps 1,500 women and children annually who have been a victim of domestic violence. It’s not unusual for women to tell us that they wished they would have learned how to recognize and avoid unhealthy relationships when they were teenagers.

Even so, 81 percent of parents either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know what it is.

The YWCA Northeast Indiana offers programs that are certified under Heather’s Law to teach teens the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. We go into hundreds of classrooms and youth groups each year, and we hear stories directly from teenagers.

In one local high school, for example, a sophomore girl approached us after participating in our “Eyes Wide Open” program. Her senior boyfriend was isolating her from friends, even showing up at the end of each class and escorting her to her next classroom. “My boyfriend is smothering me,” she said. She was depressed and wanted to end the relationship but was afraid for her safety. We advised her how to stay safe and notified the school counselor, who helped her and her family when she ended the relationship.

What can parents do?

Talk with your teen-agers about the potential for dating violence and unhealthy relationships. If you need information, go to our website (www.ywca.org/NEIN). If your school is not addressing the issue, ask why.

Most of all, keep your eyes open. Watch for changes in behavior such as depression, withdrawal and anxiety that may be signs of an unhealthy relationship, and act on your hunches. Savvy parents realize that teen dating violence exists and help their children avoid it.

Deborah Beckman is president and CEO of the YWCA Northeast Indiana. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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