Pregnancy not the only danger for our daughters
After pondering the Bristol Palin pregnancy revelation for several days, I realize the need to wrap two serious issues with the potential to be deadly into one post: teen pregnancy and dating violence. They’re not only connected, they’re so closely interwoven that you can’t talk about one without the other.
I say this because of the recent study I wrote about in July. Commissioned by Liz Claiborne, Inc., it found that pre-teens (“tweens”) as young as 11-years-old are dating AND becoming victims of violence in the process.
Such violence can and does lead to pregnancy, as a 1995 Alan Guttmacher Institute study found. It revealed men age 20 or older fathered 66-percent of the babies born to teen mothers. Which makes it, by definition, child abuse. This problem hasn’t gone away; it’s just been swept under the rug until just such a time as this: The daughter of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is about to become an unwed mother (until she marries her teenage boyfriend, Levi Johnston).
Because a national audience is focused on a young woman who, by all rights, should be given the dignity of bearing her child in private, and also because the national teen pregnancy rate spiked in 2006 for the first time in 14 years, there is no better time to talk about the repercussions of teen dating and pregnancy than now.
The other consequence from teen dating can be seen by what happened to Sami Hightshoe and Lindsay Burke: Sami was repeatedly sexually abused in the woods behind her school and in her own home by her boyfriend, from the age of 14 until she finally found a way to end the relationship—with a restraining order against the guy. To protect Sami, her family had to spend $6,000 in legal fees.
I met Sami in Washington, DC, at the National Press Club earlier this summer, where she grew so choked up talking about her experience, she could barely tell the media what happened. (As a mom and a fellow sister of silence/rape victim, I wanted to do nothing more than hand her a tissue, and tell her it gets easier, each time you talk about it.) Through her tears, this teen of 16 told the audience that she just wants to help other teens in similar situations to get out—before it’s too late.
“There is hope out there. They’re not alone,” Sami said. In fact, Sami found that hope herself, within just such a group of fellow survivors: Stand Up, Speak Out (SUSO), which helps other teens get out of abusive relationships.
Sami’s relationship with her boyfriend, who was two years older, started out—as many do—just fine. But then, “he started following me everywhere. He told me what to wear … he checked my phone calls to see who I was talking to … he would push me up against the wall if I tried to walk away,” Sami said. His emotional manipulation was equally harmful and did exactly what he intended: It kept Sami silent. He said if her parents found out about the (forced) sex, “they wouldn’t love me anymore and I wouldn’t have any more friends.”
Sami finally confided in her mother and got out alive: Lindsay Ann Burke, 23, wasn’t as fortunate. In just a few days, family and friends of the former school teacher will face the anniversary of her death: Lindsay was murdered three years ago this month, on September 14, 2005, after her ex-boyfriend, Geraldo E. Martinez, slashed her throat in his Rhode Island home.
Lindsay, described by those who knew her as “the girl next door,” and Martinez met at a friend’s wedding two years earlier. It led to their “tumultuous relationship,” her parents, Ann and Chris Burke, said.
A memorial site for Lindsay says: “She was mesmerized by him, and when the controlling behaviors started, she, like all victims, didn’t recognize them. They were insidious, occurring slowly, and when she did question them, she believed his excuses and apologies. She felt sorry for him, as he told her about his difficult childhood and she believed him.”
Ann told me she believes men like Martinez prey on the best among us: People who are “honest, trusting, compassionate, traits in victims which we find most admirable … the abuser plays on that.”
Society assumes women are battered because they were battered during childhood (often true, but not always) but the Burke family was the exception. Both educators, Chris (Lindsay’s father) said there was “none at all” in their family of four. (Lindsay has an older brother, Chris.) He and Ann believe this is equally harmful for unsuspecting young women: They have nothing by which to gauge the abuse.
The Burkes said parents must become educated about the warning signs in an abusive relationship, many of which are subtle. And they need to talk to their “children about what a healthy relationship should contain, which is respect, number one,” Chris said. He doesn’t think most parents are doing this, because they assume their children know what is healthy and what isn’t. “You can’t assume anything today,” he added.
Ann actually teaches health education in the schools, and she says parents need to begin talking about relationships by the time their children enter elementary school; incorporate how to get along with other people, and then broach the topic of showing respect. Gradually build on that and by eighth grade, children will know “the warning signs,” she said. This will help them so by the time they reach high school, they’ll know what to look for in a healthy relationship, she added.
“Education is the key to addressing this major health problem and … we believe teen dating violence education must be mandatory,” Ann said. “Teens have a right to know this information and parents have a right to know as well, so they can discuss this with their children and reinforce what they are learning in school.”
“It’s too late to help Lindsay, but I believe Lindsay would want us to help others,” she added.
At least something good came from Lindsay’s death: Her parents and Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch helped pass the “Lindsay Ann Burke Law.” It requires grades 7-12 throughout the state to teach about teen dating violence in their health curriculum.
Not only do teachers and students learn about dating violence: It makes annual awareness training for parents mandatory. Ann says the dating violence training is no different from other mandatory training for students, such as HIV, drug and sex education. She wants to see it become a national program so it ensures teens will know not only the warning signs, but also “how to help themselves and others, and where to get help.”
Then, “episodes of teen dating violence at school will no longer be ignored,” Ann added.
The findings of the recent teen/tween dating violence survey should help with that goal. And Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a leading expert on adolescent health and trauma, said it’s greatly needed. As a researcher and a doctor, she gleaned three important points:
- There is now data “across the nation on 11-14 year olds,” compared to data that has typically looked at older teens. What does the data show? That many teens, “a good 40-percent plus … know of a friend who has been in an abusive relationship,” Miller said.
She’s seen it firsthand in her clinic, so some of the findings didn’t come as a surprise. What did surprise Miller is that its extent and severity “is staggering and … really critical for us to pay attention to.”
- Miller said the study also focused on emotional abuse and controlling behaviors, such as boyfriends or girlfriends telling their partner who they can hang out with, threatening to tell their partners’ parents, isolation, instant messaging the partner numerous times a day, and telling them what clothes to wear.
Tweens and teens need to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, “but our media images of unhealthy relationships” are so insidious, and so many (youth) assume emotional control and jealousy are part and parcel of all relationships, Miller said.
- Finally, parents are ignoring the dangers by minimizing or denying a problem exists. “While parents recognize that many young adolescents are engaging in dating relationships, there is a strong amount of minimizing of what’s going on with their own child, parental denial,” Miller said. This prevents parents from being educated about the warning signs of abuse.
“We have to stop minimizing. We have to stop sticking our heads in the sand. We need to recognize that … abuse is occurring in adolescence, it’s occurring with younger adolescents, and it’s not okay,” she added.
The study produced some crucial information about today’s youth, when it comes to dating and violence. But it didn’t address that other problem that occurs: teen pregnancy. Miller told me about a study she took part in during 2007, which shocked researchers. Those findings show that not only do teens become pregnant while dating, but all too often their male partners take steps to ensure this happens.
Abusers sabotage their partner’s birth control efforts, including forcing the partner to have sex without a condom or other contraceptive use. Early sex and violence for those teens, age 14-20, produce what Miller called “a lifetime history of pregnancy.”
This is a piece of the puzzle that is little known, but which happens more often than people think. (I explore how this happened to me in my memoir, Sister of Silence, which I hope will be a good tool for parents, and provide a warning for society in general.) Perhaps now that teen pregnancy has become a hot topic, parents will realize how much guidance their children need when it comes to dating, violence and respect.
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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”