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The teenage girl remembers that she didn’t know what to do when her boyfriend started using violence to manipulate her. He hit her, she recalls, when she didn’t dress to his liking. He hit her for talking to the “wrong” people. And he hit her during disagreements over how she should spend her time away from him.

But still, Rae Spence, now 18, didn’t tell her parents the full extent of her boyfriend’s abuse because she didn’t want to get him, or herself, in trouble. She hid much of the abuse from friends, teachers and others who might have helped because she was afraid they’d judge her harshly for being in an abusive relationship.

Finally, Spence did break up with the boyfriend, but he had grown so possessive by then that she changed high schools to get away from him.

Spence was lucky to escape. Months later, her ex-boyfriend was convicted for murder in the stabbing death of his new girlfriend and is now in prison, she says. “You would never have thought he’d be this sort of guy,” she says. “He played sports, was a good student, seemed happy. But he was angry.”

It is important that teenagers like Spence share their stories because it helps others suffering through similar abusive dating relationships realize they are not alone, says Martin N. Olsen, who chairs the ABA Steering Committee on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children.

“This is a serious issue crossing all socioeconomic lines,” says Olsen of Midvale, Utah. “Estimates range from one-in-five to one-in-three teens who will be a party to an abusive dating relationship. That figure just staggers the mind. It’s something that nobody is talking about, and all the teens we heard from thought it was only happening to them.”

Teens Helping Teens

In November, the committee provided an outlet for Spence and dozens of other teens from around the country to talk about their experiences when it sponsored a national summit in Washington, D.C., on teen dating violence. The teens also helped design a program to educate students about the causes and effects of abusive dating relationships, and how to deal with them. The program includes an outreach component for teens who commit dating abuse.

The summit also produced the idea for holding a National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Awareness Week, which, Olsen says, has been picking up steam. The inaugural event will be held the week of Feb. 6-10, 2006.

The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution endorsing the violence prevention week. A number of organizations are joining up as co-sponsors, including the American Medical Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the National Association of Counsel for Children. Other ABA entities also plan to participate.

Meanwhile, the Steering Committee on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children is seeking to raise about $1 million so it can send a tool kit it has produced on the dating abuse issue to every high school in the country, Olsen says. The materials were developed to help facilitate discussion about the issue among teens, teachers and parents.

A key to the success of the effort is that teens participate in the design, planning and presentation of programs on dating abuse, Olsen says.

That view is endorsed by Spence and other teens who participated in the summit on dating violence.

“I can’t believe I am about to say this, but teens respect other teens above all else,” says Henry C. Miller, a high school sophomore who participated in the summit. “We just have this innate feeling that we’ll tell each other the truth, not some adult version of how it should be.” n

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