Teen dating violence survivors and allies call for more education on abuse

State Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown Township) urges her colleagues to approve a resolution. (Michigan Advance/Anna Liz Nichols)

By Michigan Advance

March 21, 2024


Domestic violence care providers called attention to heightened danger for those experiencing abuse during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as individuals spent more time at home with their abusers and access to resources was strained. This Michigan Advance series aims to shed light on the hurdles victims of domestic violence and care providers are facing now.

Editor’s note: This story includes discussions of rape, suicide and child death

MICHIGAN—When Aubrie used to picture domestic violence, she thought of a married couple, maybe with a few children. That was before she began dating her first boyfriend when she was 14.

“We were in a relationship for about a year. The mental violence started pretty early on, I would say probably within the first few months, and then sexual and physical violence started probably halfway through,” recalled Aubrie, now 22 and living in Washtenaw County. The Advance agreed to only use Aubrie’s first name because we do not identify survivors of sexual or domestic violence without their consent.

It was little things at first, Aubrie said. Her boyfriend would say his friends didn’t like her and his parents hated her. He’d take any opportunity to sabotage her personal relationships with people who cared about her.

“They do things to make you act crazy; then they call you crazy,” Aubrie said. “I wasn’t present in the lives of my friends, my family, because I was just so wrapped up. My whole life had to be about him because if it wasn’t, then it was, ‘Oh, you don’t care about me. You’re a horrible girlfriend.’”

Each year, millions of teenagers in the United States like Aubrie experience some form of dating violence, whether it’s physical or sexual abuse, mental violence or stalking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency reports around 1 in 12 high school students experience physical violence in their relationships, and the same number experience sexual violence in their relationships.

Research from the National Domestic Violence Hotline indicates that the problem is more widespread, with 1 in 3 teens in the US experiencing some form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse from someone they’re in a relationship with before adulthood.

The US Department of Education agrees with research published by the American Psychological Association that reflects that more than one-third of adolescents in one US study ages 14 to 20 reported having been victims of intimate partner violence in their dating relationships.

That’s something that Michigan Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown Twp.) knows all too well. Her daughter, Jordan Thompson, endured years of abusive relationships, beginning when she was 15.

Three years ago, Thompson saw Jordan for the last time.

She was killed in a motorcycle crash when she was just 24. Jordan was riding on the back of her boyfriend’s bike after they had a fight because she had spoken to a male friend from high school while they were out. Seething with jealousy, her boyfriend began to speed and lost control of the motorcycle, ultimately killing them both.

Thompson described her first-born child as strong-willed, a talented dancer and a caring friend. And all of a sudden, Jordan had three children who had now lost their mother. Thompson took on caring for her daughter’s kids. Everytime she looks at her 7-year-old granddaughter, she sees Jordan.

“She looks just like her. She acts just like her. She has the sassy thing going on and she lets my husband know,” Thompson told the Advance in an interview last month. “She has all of Jordan.”

The stress and isolation of abuse

Aubrie’s high school boyfriend was a junior when she was a freshman. He was older, extremely popular in the school and loved by everybody, Aubrie said. “In the beginning stages of us connecting, I was pretty crazy about him. … I think that he just took advantage of that and he knew that he could do whatever he wanted.”

Dating violence wasn’t really a part of her high school’s sex education, Aubrie said. When her boyfriend at the time began pressuring her to have sex, she said she told him she didn’t want to.

But it got to the point where he’d use physical force to make her comply, Audrie said. And then he would warn her afterward not to tell anyone; saying their relationship was just between them.

The relationship was on and off near the end Aubrie said. All the while, he would belittle her in front of other people in the hall, grab her by the back of the neck or push her into walls.

“He was a lot more mentally abusive afterwards than when we were in the relationship—I think because he wasn’t able to have that physical and sexual control over me,” Aubrie said.

The stress of the abuse—and hiding it—left her with disordered eating habits, which impacted her performance in sports in high school.

On the day Aubrie told her ex-boyfriend that she wanted him out of her life for good, she told her friends she was going to end her own life.

And that’s when Aubrie said came clean to her parents about some of the abuse she had suffered. They connected her with people to talk to and resources.

“At that point in my life, nobody knew the extent,” Aubrie said. “I just was pretty open about the mental abuse, but because I was so young I still didn’t really understand what happened.”

There are misconceptions that victims usually don’t know their rapists, but in reality, most rapes are perpetrated by a person the victim knows. It can be particularly difficult for survivors when the person who assaulted them is their partner.

“Six or seven months after him and I completely broke off what we had, I remember sitting in the library with my friends and I was like, ‘I need to talk to you guys about something.’ Because at this point, I still was unsure, like, ‘Did I? Did I just get raped?’” Aubrie said.

Aubrie said her friends agreed that what had happened to her was, in fact, rape.

More than seven years have passed and Aubrie said she only recently told her mom about the extent of the abuse.

“At the time, I don’t even think I really knew what had just happened to me, so I didn’t feel the need to tell anybody,” Aubrie said. “I also didn’t want to tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to know that I was sexually active in the first place.”

Teenagers often don’t share with their parents when they’ve been hurt in a relationship for a variety of reasons, Ypsilanti-based domestic violence survivor and advocate Nicole Beverly said. Whether it’s out of shame or guilt over being abused or fear that a parent would stop them from dating, teenagers don’t generally confide in parents when they need help.

But the stakes are too high for teenagers, Beverly said. Domestic violence at any age can turn lethal and schools need to do a better job of equipping kids to recognize early signs of abusive behavior.

“With any other epidemic … like COVID, we do prevention. No one is doing prevention for dating violence and our numbers are growing, our homicide rate is growing. Somebody needs to do something about prevention,” Beverly said.

Beverly recalled her relationship with her ex-husband, who she met when she was 18. He’s currently serving consecutive prison sentences for threatening to kill Beverly after years of what she told the Advance was severe emotional and physical abuse.

He made jealous and possessive comments that disparaged her character, starting in the first few months of the relationship, Beverly said, which chipped away at her sense of self over time.

“He had broken me, truly; I was a broken human. I couldn’t look people in the eye anymore at work. I was a shell of myself. I was literally a shell of myself,” Beverly said. “It wasn’t until the physical abuse really magnified at the end and he held a gun to my head [and] beat me severely that I had the wake up call like, ‘OK, you need to go, because he’s going to kill you.’”

Red flags of dating violence

Now, Beverly goes to schools in Michigan and other states to talk with students and educational professionals on the early signs of teen dating violence. She usually visits two or three schools a year for a multi-day program in addition to other advocacy in and out of schools. She hopes to make her teen dating violence program a full-time commitment.

“If anyone had taught me the red flags, I could have avoided my abusive relationship, because they were all there,” Beverly said.

In Michigan, where Aubrie went to high school, there is no requirement for schools to provide sex education beyond mandatory requirements to educate on HIV and AIDS, much less a curriculum on dating violence.

Unfortunately, conversations about dating and dating violence often get tied up with sexual health education, said Amanda Barratt, senior program director at the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCEDSV). Often, schools that don’t offer comprehensive sex education also don’t provide information about dating violence.

“Teen dating violence just affects so many people. It affects millions of people and how it’s happening can look different than how people’s experience with other types of violence looks like,” Barratt said. “I think a lot of people think of dating violence or domestic violence as just physical violence … but there’s also sexual violence, stalking. This type of violence can happen online. It can be facilitated through technology … and a lot of people minimize the impact of violence for young people.”

Beverly said the modern-day ability for romantic partners to track their partner’s location through their cell phone is a huge problem for teens. Teens sharing what’s known as “revenge porn”—private, possibly nude, photos of their partners or ex-partners—has also grown in recent years, despite being illegal in Michigan and other states.

Technology has upped the ability for teens to intimate their romantic partners or former partners, Beverly said, recalling on one occasion that while she was giving a presentation, there was a student on his phone and she had to ask him to put it away and listen.

“After I was done talking, a young lady came up to me and said, ‘I want to show you this,’” Beverly said.

It had turned out that the student who was on his phone was texting the girl, his ex-girlfriend, saying “I guess you are one in three”, Beverly said.

One of the early signs that Beverly teaches students to look out for are early signs of possessiveness, like a person who insists on rushing a relationship or orchestrating big demonstrations of affection in order to influence and control their partner, known as love bombing.

Beverly cautions students to be wary if the person they date is “a jealous person” or if they require a lot of their time. If the person isolates them from their peers or family members by convincing them to center the dating relationship, it’s a red flag. Often abusive partners disparage activities or friends that are important to the victim until they only prioritize the relationship.

“They only want to spend time with you. They don’t want you doing activities you used to like to do. They don’t want you talking to people of the opposite sex so they accuse you of flirting with other people,” Beverly said.

Emotional abuse can start small with name calling and escalate to threats of violence. Physical abuse can start with a shove or a forceful grab and can turn into life-threatening scenarios.

“I tell them to watch for their anger, not just around you, but just in general. So if you’re out in public with a waiter that does something or someone bumps into them, are they having unusual responses of anger in general?” Beverly said.

How schools can address the problem

It can be confusing for teenagers, many of whom are dating for the first time in their lives, to recognize red flags, Beverly said. So it’s important to equip them with the knowledge to make good decisions for themselves in dating.

Even in high schools where teen dating violence is brought up during health class, that often comes years after kids have started requiring an understanding of what healthy relationships look like, said Joanne Smith-Darden of Youth Empowerment Solutions for Healthy Relationships (YES-HR).

“In health class in ninth grade, they’re already past when they’ve started to be attracted to whomever they’re attracted to and these behaviors have already begun,” Smith-Darden said. “So we were actually funded to do it in high school and we argued from a developmental perspective, we’d like to do it in middle school.”

The YES-HR program—one of the various YES programs that have run in Michigan—was developed by Smith-Darden, a professor in the Michigan State University School of Social Work, and other stakeholders in reducing youth violence and building healthy relationship skills in middle school in at-risk districts in Southeast Michigan.

Within the program, schools allow healthy relationship lessons to be incorporated into portions of their social studies classes. Additionally, students work on a community project which helps them learn how to work collaboratively together and build relationships with each other and their community. Smith-Darden said kids have painted murals, secured filtered water fountains and fundraised for athletic uniforms.

“You can’t just walk in and say, ‘I’m Dr. Smith-Darden. … I’m a social worker and a psychologist’ and expect that that kid across from you is going to be forthcoming and trust you enough to have these really important conversations,” Smith-Darden said. “To be able to truly reach them is to give them a safe place of belonging or connectedness and then work toward those very important discussions.”

Education can be instrumental in recognizing abuse, state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said. Speaking from her experiences working with students in the Detroit-area high school fellowship program she started, Girls Making a Change, Chang said young Michiganders and kids accross the US are experiencing sexual violence at significant rates.

The girls involved in Girls Making a Change have expressed interest into addressing sexual violence at their schools, Chang told the Advance.

“Every year, they come up with a community action project on an issue that they choose. … And the girls in that very first year, and the second year, actually, they chose to work on the issue of sexual violence,” Chang said. “What was really powerful is they actually did a whole peer-to-peer survey. … They recognized with a survey that most of their peers knew someone who was a survivor of sexual assault or they themselves were.”

Some of the girls’ work, their observations, ideas and suggestions actually helped author Chang’s original version of the sexual assault and harassment education mandate for schools that became law in 2023.

Under Chang’s legislation, public schools will be required to distribute age-appropriate information about sexual assault and harassment to students between grades six and 12 starting in the 2024-2025 school year.

Barratt and other members of MCEDSV are involved with other stakeholders to create the materials which will include examples of what sexual assault and harrassment can look like, messaging to students that victims of such abuse are not at fault for the abuse and advisement for students on how to get help if they or a friend has experienced sexual violence.

In addition to materials schools are mandated to give to students, Barratt said school staff will be given information on how to address the reports of violence students may bring to them. The materials aim to provide teachers and other members of the school tools to normalize reporting violence at school.

“When you give out information on sexual harassment and sexual assault, you might see more disclosures of it happening because you’re opening up that conversation and normalizing that,” Barratt said. “What we don’t want is for this resource to go out and then people think that the resource is causing this to happen because that’s not true. But research shows that when you believe and support people coming forward, they will talk about this; they will come forward.”

High school and college are important times, especially for young women, to know what healthy relationships look like, Beverly said. Young women ages 16 to 24 have been found to be the most likely to experience intimate partner violence, at nearly three times the rate as all other women, according to the US Department of Justice.

But because in-depth data on teen dating violence is limited, Beverly said she conducts a survey at the schools she visits. One of the questions students answer is, “Have you or any of your high school age friends already been a victim of dating violence?” She finds between 40% and 60% of students say they have, depending on the school.

“This happens almost every year where someone from the past will reach out to me and say, ‘Because of what you taught me, I was able to leave an abusive relationship.’ And some of the students have even paid it forward and plan presentations of their colleges,” Beverly said.

Teen dating violence isn’t rare

Creating conversations surrounding relationship violence in medicine is vital to intervention, University of Michigan intimate partner violence researchersaid.

“How prevalent does something have to be to get the attention of a health care provider? This is certainly not in the rare diagnosis category,” Singh said.

In a study screening over 4,000 young men and women ages 14 to 20 visiting the Emergency Department, Singh and other researchers found that 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 8 young men said they were involved in a violent dating relationship in the last year, either as a victim or perpetrator.

Michigan State Police data for 2022 show that 6,938 of the total 67,029 domestic violence offenders were under age 20. As for victims, 10,414 of the 69,765 victims were under the age of 20 in the same time period.

In terms of early intervention, adolescents aren’t typically asked by medical professionals if they feel safe with their dating partner the way adults are asked, Singh said.

“I think providers—physicians; nurses; social workers—think about violence in relationships more with the #MeToo movement,” Singh said. “I think there’s at least more awareness of it, but there is also the interface where some healthcare providers might feel like that’s not necessarily their role to ask about relationship problems.”

But with the frequency of teen dating violence and the later-in-life implications of experiencing violence in a person’s youth, it’s important for health care professionals to prioritize conversations surrounding violence with young patients, Singh said.

“The only way to know is to ask. There is no blood test. There is no imaging test that will tell us that there is violence happening in this relationship. The only way we’ve got right now is to ask,” Singh said.

For adults who reported being victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, the CDC found in 2010 that about 22% of women and 15% of men had experienced at least some form of intimate partner violence for the first time between ages 11 and 17.

And the impacts of violence in a person’s teen years can last a lifetime.

A review published by the American Academy of Pediatrics of more than 30 studies found teen dating violence was linked to negative long-term outcomes such as declines in mental and physical health, addiction and both revictimization and continued perpetration by those who were the abusers in teen relationships.

The cost of not identifying teen dating violence is too high, Michigan Rep. Thompson said last month as she told the story of her daughter on the House floor, urging her colleagues to recognize February 2024 as National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month in the state of Michigan after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made a similar proclamation.

“To truly combat teen dating violence, we must equip our educators, our parents and all of us in the community with the tools to identify these signs of abuse and emphasize—please emphasize—the importance of fostering self-worth in our children,” Thompson said. “I know if my daughter were here, she’d say, ‘Mom, I’m OK. Now go out and fight like hell for the rest of those girls.’”

When Jordan became pregnant at 16 by a different boyfriend, Thompson said her family did everything to try and help Jordan and support her boyfriend with a job. But for nine years Jordan hid that he was abusing her, Thompson said. With every black eye and busted car window, Jordan offered some sort of an explanation.

Although Thompson said she had doubts about Jordan’s explanations for things, she knew that her daughter was doing everything in her power to try and make sure the father of her children would stick around.

“She always wanted him to be … a dad to the kids,” Thompson said. “I would tell her, ‘You know, you can’t force someone. I wish you could. I wish you could force him to be everything you need him to be for the kids.’ But she kept growing and he just stayed stagnant.”

After that relationship finally ended, Jordan began to thrive, but the damage had been done, Thompson said.

“That was the pattern, because you saw her and she blossomed. She has all her self-esteem back. And she lost all the weight from the kids and she looked amazing and she dyed her hair blonde because he [her ex-boyfriend] would never let her have blonde hair. Oh my goodness, she blossomed. And then the first guy she started dating just immediately did the same thing; the jealousy, the nonsense, the control,” Thompson said.

As a single mom, Jordan fought for a better life for her kids, earning her high school diploma and a certified nursing assistant license. She had been accepted to a college nursing program.

“Jordan was very fortunate that I would have done anything to help her. Three a.m. and she needs diapers, I would have driven to get them and she had the friendships where they would help each other,” Thompson said.

But trying to get access to subsidized housing, food programs, affordable health care, all while wanting your kids to have another parent was challenging. Thompson said she can see how a lot of young women in Jordan’s position return to abusive relationships.

“After the [motorcycle] accident, I actually found her journal entries. And she had written, ‘30 reasons why not to go back,’ and in those reasons it was, ‘the cigarette butts he put out on me,’ ‘locking me in the room and not giving me my phone,’ ‘the friends I turned away,’ [and] ‘this is the way that the kids are going to think relationships are supposed to be,’” Thompson said. “And then on the side, she drew a big heart and put, ‘You deserve better.’ And I never found that out until after the accident.”

Parents and schools need to start talking with kids about what healthy relationships look like and really communicating the need for kids to have self-worth, Thompson said.

“We get so wrapped up in our lives and I catch myself with my grandkids. … It’s important to try to strike up those conversations with them and let them know that you’re there for them to talk to and work through things,” Thompson said. “I feel like my role is just a mom who wants to be the mom for many kids that may not have that mom they can talk to and getting into schools or advocating … because I do think that so many parents are missing the signs.”

Engaging students

Violence is already in many kids’ lives, but they just don’t have anyone to tell about it, said Tisha Williams, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti.

So when Williams agreed to have Beverly talk with her students for a multi-day dating violence segment for school, she watched as students related Beverly’s story to violence they saw in their own lives.

“The students were really engaged and it’s hard to get high school students engaged,” Williams said. “I work really hard on building relationships in my classroom and so what happened for me … is students came to me on their own [and asked], ‘Ms. Williams, is this a red flag?’ ‘Ms. Williams, I have a friend that I think is in this relationship, what do I do?’ ‘Ms. Williams, this happens in my home and I thought it was OK, but I don’t think it’s OK anymore.’”

Chang said the girls she was working with in Girls Making a Change realized that students weren’t learning at school what sexual assault can entail and how to get help. And even though students would confide in their peers about assault, the other students didn’t know what to do after a friend confided in them. 

Her hope is when students receive the new materials on sexual violence, they may be better equipped to be that trusted friend to their peers.

“We know that the first person that someone discloses to, how they respond can make all the difference in whether or not that person is ever gonna report to law enforcement or ever go seek help,” Chang said. “We hope that this new law will help to really start to change the culture around this … and really give people the resources that they need.”

And as schools receive the sexual harassment and assault awareness materials this summer for the next school year, MCEDSV is planning to unveil at the same time a new section of its website to providing resources for Michigan youths concerning sexual violence and relationship violence, Barratt said.

“There are things that all of us can do to prevent this violence, to stop this violence from happening,” Barratt said. “Part of it is recognizing that this violence is happening, acknowledging that it is happening, believing people when they’re coming forward and looking at teen dating violence as a real problem that we all have opportunities to stop.”

Williams said her students have found empowerment by learning more about relationship violence, Williams said. It’s a relatable topic for her students unfortunately, but they have a stake in trying to learn more and figure out what they can do for others and how to stop it.

“They’re learning these lifelong skills because it’s important to them and it matters to them,” Williams. “These kids are out here just, I think, yearning for help.”

Students at her school face a six month wait to get any mental health counseling. Although it’s hard for already overworked educators to create trusting relationships with students, it may be the only lifeline students have, Williams said.

“If it takes six months to get into any sort of counseling, what do we do in the six months? Because we’ve lost, I think, three students in the last school year to suicide. … It’s a huge problem,” Williams said. “What happens the other months? The other weeks when ‘Now it’s done it’s over, we’ve moved on’ and they haven’t moved on.”

In the more than seven years since she was abused by her first boyfriend, Aubrie has had a lot of time to think about the hurdles that kids like her face.

There is a lot of failure to educate kids about the violence they might encounter, she said. By the time they realize what happened to them wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t right, the damage has been done.

It takes a lot of work to navigate life after abuse.

“They get to be my age and they realize in their adult life, they put a lot of blame and guilt on themselves. Because they’re looking back on it and it’s like, ‘how did you not know?’” Aubrie said. “I spent so much time being ashamed of it and viewing myself as a victim rather than a survivor. And I think that it’s important that as life goes on after something like this happened, especially as a teenager, you need to forgive yourself.”

Here are resources online outlining what dating violence can look like for teens and helplines:

Love is Respect National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474)Michigan Domestic Violence Hotline (1-866-864-2338)National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233)StrongHearts Native Helpline (1-844-762-8483)Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673)

READ MORE: Michigan Dems advance bills to protect survivors of domestic abuse

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 




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