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David Baxter PhD

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Young and vulnerable: Teenagers may misread signs of abuse as evidence of love
By KIM NGUYEN, The Gazette, Colorado Springs
November 11, 2007

One-third of teenagers in America say they worry about their physical safety while in a relationship. About one in five say they?ve been abused by a partner.

Teens are not immune to domestic violence, 2006 statistics from the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline show. In El Paso County, 50 people ages 13 to 18 were helped by the domestic violence-prevention agency TESSA last year.

?Domestic violence goes on in all kinds of relationships,? TESSA Executive Director Michelle Valdez said. It?s naive, she said, ?for any of us to think that it doesn?t happen in a dating relationship between teenagers.?

In some ways, experts say, teens may be more vulnerable. And the consequences can be deadly. On Monday, 17-year-old Andrew Brown shot two people and assaulted his ex-girlfriend in southeast Colorado Springs, police said. He killed himself with a shotgun as police officers arrived. Michael Fisher, 18, was killed in the shooting, and his friend 16-year-old Jeremy Vasquez remains in critical condition at a Denver hospital. The ex-girlfriend, 16-year old Tiffany Howard, suffered a fractured skull.

Police say Howard asked Vasquez to pick her up at Doherty High School because she was concerned about Brown, with whom she had recently ended a relationship. Shortly after Vasquez, Fisher and two other friends picked up Howard at the school, they were chased by Brown. Police say the shooting began when Brown pulled alongside Fisher?s vehicle on South Murray Boulevard near Crestline Drive and fired into it with a shotgun, hitting Vasquez.

Victims advocates and law enforcement officials are using the tragedy to shed light on domestic violence among teens. ?Obviously, we want these incidents reported. And if we have more incidents reported in the next month or two because of this awareness, then I would suggest that that?s not necessarily a bad thing,? said police Sgt. Howard Black.

It?s not unusual for officers to arrest teens for domestic abuse in Colorado Springs, he said. Officers made 16 such arrests in one day last week. ?And none of them had anything to do with the tragedy,? said Black, who has worked domestic violence cases for the department for 20 years. ?We make these kinds of arrests every day.?

Teens sometimes think differently than adults when it comes to handling dating relationships, says Sandy Milligan, School District 11 psychologist and crisis team coordinator. She says relationships can be an exciting journey for teens, and they may not be aware of the warning signs of an abusive relationship. Victims can mistake possessive behavior or physical abuse for signs of love. ?Teens haven?t been on their own before, they don?t know how it feels to not be told what to do. The controlling behavior, to them, shows that he cares,? Milligan said. ?Also, partly it?s them developing independence. They want to be on their own, and so they model adult behavior.?

Significant losses can set off some teens, including divorce or the loss of a relative or parent. ?Or in the case of Monday, the loss of a girlfriend,? Milligan said.

Friends of Andrew Brown say the Doherty High School student was out of character when he attacked his ex-girlfriend and those with her. They described him as a helpful big brother-type. But they also said he loved Tiffany Howard deeply and considered her his world. Amanda Barker, 17, said Brown had said Howard was worth dying for. ?We all knew that he completely adored her,? she said. ?He must have been hurting,? said Alysha Barker, 15.

Brown?s obituary, supplied by his family and published last week in The Gazette, said, ?In the end, it was his unwavering love that consumed him and took him from us.?

Even though the shooting did not occur on school property, Milligan said District 11 officials were reviewing activities and other curriculum, such as role playing, designed to prevent domestic violence. She said schools team with the Colorado Springs Police Department and TESSA to work with students. ?The district is evaluating the whole situation on what to do better and what we need to do,? she said. ?Our prevention pieces are there, you just might not be heavily hitting that point.?

To Black, any domestic violence case comes down to how much power and control each partner has in the relationship. ?We?re dealing with human behaviors and human experiences,? he said. ?I think we have adults that don?t necessarily make good decisions. We have kids who make better choices and still can find themselves becoming victimized. It is so complicated.?

What to do if you find yourself in an abusive relationship:

  • Talk to a friend about what?s happening.
  • Take some time alone to think about the relationship and how you are being treated.
  • Speak to an adult ? like a counselor, parent, school resource officer or teacher.
  • Avoid being alone with your partner if you feel your safety may be at risk.
  • For help or advice, call or the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or TESSA?s 24-hour crisis line at 633-3819 (US).
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