Thursday, August 17, 2000
While most recent high school grads are heading to the beach and enjoying their newfound freedom, 18-year-old Christen Williams is shuffling restraining orders and mentally preparing to face her ex-boyfriend in court.
Williams has filed criminal charges against fellow Pacific Grove High School graduate Michael Hicks, whom she accuses of breaking her wrist during a heated argument last January 28. Hicks, who faces three years probation, mandatory counseling and possible jail time if convicted, adamantly maintains his innocence and has pled not guilty to the charge. This trial is one of approximately 1,200 domestic violence cases filed by the Monterey County District Attorney''s office every year.
Williams'' side of the story sounds like a classic tale of teen dating violence, a problem closely related to domestic abuse among adults. What started out as a starry-eyed case of puppy love turned violent even before the January incident, she says, explaining that her ex-boyfriend yelled at her over nothing, put her down in front of friends, and grabbed her so hard that bruises were left on her arms.
"I used to be so independent. I used to be that loud girl dancing in the halls," Williams says incredulously. "I said no man would ever run my life. This was exactly what I never wanted. But this was my first big relationship and it was so amazing that someone besides my parents loved me."
Hicks tells a very different story and has requested a jury trial for the September court hearing. "He is not guilty of anything except using bad judgment in staying in a relationship with that young woman," says Hicks'' lawyer, Enda Brennan of Santa Cruz.
Violence within teenage relationships--including anything from verbal threats and insults to physical battery--has garnered increased attention from social service providers as experts say gangs, drug use and early sexual activity have heightened violence among teens. The Applied Survey Research group in Watsonville reports that up to one-third of high school and college students nationwide experience dating violence.
According to marriage and family therapist Julianne Leavy, young people in abusive relationships are more impressionable and vulnerable than their adult counterparts, and get caught in a web of power and control that encourages them to stay in dangerous situations. "They move in, get pregnant early and become dependent," Leavy explains. "They have no jobs and may not know about any resources for help."
The primary resource for help that teens should be aware of is the YWCA of Monterey County. The YWCA will soon beef up its programs for teen victims and work to break the cycle of violence earlier, thanks to a $450,000 three-year grant from the California Department of Health Services. The new funding, issued in July, will be used to create bilingual services including a teen hotline, teen mentors, a teen drop-in group for victims, and expanded education in the local schools.
Beneath a poster reading "Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in this country," Barbara Davies, director of the Y''s domestic violence programs, sits at a desk piled high with restraining orders and educational materials. Herself a survivor of domestic abuse, Davies talks to students at junior high and high schools in P.G., Monterey and Seaside about personal space and boundaries in relationships and the ramifications of sex. Many times after speaking, youngsters have approached Davies to confess abuse at home or in relationships, and even rape.
"Domestic violence is one of the most democratic crimes there is. It cuts across every boundary of race, economics and religion," says Davies, who observes that the same dynamics of power and control, manifesting as bullying, intense jealousy, and lack of respect are constant in abusive relationships no matter the age.
Davies, who is half Latina and half Italian, points out that certain cultural practices---like the condoning of young teens dating older men in Latino communities and the Italian and Portuguese custom of sheltering young women until marriage--can exacerbate the incidence of domestic violence. Poverty is also a factor, says Davies. "When the kids have no money and they''re feeling less than," she explains, "they need to control something." She maintains that young people in this area face isolation and boredom and need greater attention from adults than the 30-1 classroom ratio allows for.
And sadly, since 85 percent of batterers experienced or witnessed abuse as children, many young people learn controlling and abusive lessons in their homes. "I worked with a junior high boy charged with sexual harassment of a female classmate," explains Davies. "His dad was a male chauvinist and all the kid could do was blame the girl for being promiscuous."
Children as young as 12 go to the YWCA seeking counseling or help with restraining orders, and many have been scared to tell their parents or to involve the police because of domestic violence in the home or fear over confessing sexual intimacy to parents.
The discomfort of discussing problem relationships doesn''t end when kids ''fess up, either. The most difficult part can be the actual trial in court. Christen Williams was at first scared to talk to her parents and is now nervous about going over her relationship and sex life in excruciating detail in court. Elaine McClief, deputy district attorney in the Domestic Violence Unit who represents Williams, says that "court is extra terrifying for younger victims. They have to tell their stories not just in front of the court and God, but in front of their parents, too."
When victims speak up and take the perpetrators of domestic abuse to trial, the aggressors face dramatic changes to their lives as well. Currently, there are over 2,500 people on probation for domestic violence charges countywide, the vast majority of whom are men. Convicted abusers over the age of 18 face three years of formal probation, one year of mandated therapy, a stay away order, mandated restitution, and jail time of 30-165 days. Convicted minors generally face shorter therapy sessions and community service time.
And ultimately, no matter what happens in court, the young victims of dating violence suffer. Leavy, who has seen over 100 young victims of dating violence in her local practice, says that low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, self-mutilation and even suicidal thoughts are common among abused teens, many of whom also experienced child abuse in their homes. Many young victims need up to several years of therapy in order to change their dating patterns and steer clear of dangerous liaisons.
But the real question is how to stop abusers from acting again. According to the Applied Survey Research in Watsonville, age-appropriate services for young perpetrators are sorely lacking nationwide. Davies hopes that the YWCA and other groups will soon expand their provision of services to target the batterers as well as the victims. "Because of their youth, young abusers really can change their behavior if they identify it and admit it," she says.