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Education is critical in combating domestic violence

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Education is critical in combating domestic violence

Last month, the Boston Public Health Commission released a survey of 200 teens revealing that almost half of them blamed Rihanna for the highly publicized abuse allegedly inflicted on her by Chris Brown, and that over half thought he was being treated unfairly by the media. Many found the teens’ viewpoints disturbing and alarming. And they are.

But for those of us who work with victims of domestic violence, the survey results did not come as much of a surprise. If anything, they were a validation of everything we have learned over the years about the myriad misconceptions that exist about both domestic violence and teen dating violence. Rarely does anyone ask: Why did this happen, and what will prevent it from happening again?

What’s missing here? Education. The fact is, abuse happens to hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults every day. It happens because they never learned to identify the warning signs that may lead to violence in an intimate relationship. Often, it happens because they have grown up in abusive homes and are now perpetuating the cycle of abuse and violence themselves, either as batterers or as victims.

Young people for whom dating is a new experience are unlikely to understand the dynamics of abusive relationships, which may begin innocently enough but can rapidly worsen. When abusers do harm their partners, they typically vow never to hit them again. Victims convince themselves that it won’t happen again, because they desperately want that to be true. And the clock starts ticking.

It doesn’t have to happen that way.

Chris and Rihanna have given a gift to millions of parents, grandparents, teachers, ministers, coaches, health care professionals, youth group leaders and more. They’ve given us an opportunity to start a critical conversation with the young adults in our lives. It needs to be an ongoing conversation, because teaching lifelong lessons about respectful behavior in relationships is not a one-shot deal.

Think the kids in your life are too young to be a part of this conversation? Think again. You’re never too young to learn that there is a right way and a wrong way to behave toward a partner in a relationship. Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers learn from the adults around them. If what they’re seeing at home is how to be violent and abusive to a partner, be prepared — those lessons last a lifetime.

My husband and I have children at home who are fans of Chris Brown and Rihanna’s music. Their awareness of domestic violence is high; their mother has spent the past 20 years working with victims. We’ve had numerous conversations about the story as it has unfolded. We’ve asked them what they think, what their friends think and, even more importantly, what lessons they’re learning.

To be honest, I was surprised at the number of questions they had. I was also grateful for the reminder that, as parents, we are responsible for keeping the subject of teen dating violence on their radar screen, as much as seat belts, substance abuse and safe sex. It’s a vital part of their education, and the lessons they learn now can help keep them safe long into the future.

At Casa Myrna Vazquez, we believe there is a real need for a sustained, far-reaching campaign of public education that gets us all talking and thinking about domestic violence in a new way. It’s high time we left behind the backward thinking of the past — “it’s their business” and “why didn’t she just leave?” or “why did she go back?” — and agreed on a simple, universal truth: There is no excuse for domestic violence.

Already, we have seen corporations and foundations increase their commitment to educating youth about this serious issue. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is prioritizing education about teen dating violence through its Strong Start: Building Healthy Teen Relationships Initiative, which aims to teach youth between the ages of 10 and 14 about the dynamics of healthy relationships. Just last November, the foundation awarded the Boston Public Health Commission a $1 million, four-year grant to implement its Strong Start initiative in Boston. In the corporate world, companies like Verizon, Avon, Mary Kay and Liz Claiborne are leading the way, funding efforts to raise awareness about domestic violence and provide services to victims.

With their help, and hopefully more like them, we will see more prevention efforts in our schools, more posters on billboards and bus stops, and a community-wide response to domestic violence that is centered on the message that there is never an excuse for abuse.

For help and information on resources available across Massachusetts, please call SafeLink, the toll-free, multilingual hotline operated by Casa Myrna Vazquez under contract with the state Department of Children and Families, at 877-785-2020.

Deborah Collins-Gousby is the interim executive director of Casa Myrna Vazquez, a Boston-based nonprofit that has been providing shelter and supportive services to victims of domestic violence since 1977.