Change Maker: Day One, Ending Youth Domestic Violence

Natalie Rentas


The Problem

Youth dating abuse and domestic violence is widespread; New York has the highest reported rate of sexual dating abuse and the third highest rate of physical dating abuse in the country according to the CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Yet domestic violence hotlines and other victim support services are often tailored for adults. Youth (aged 24 and under) can be especially vulnerable to both experiencing and perpetrating this type of violence, yet they often lack the language and sophistication of adults in asking for and getting help.

Suffering In Silence  

One in 10 teens in New York City schools report experiencing physical or sexual violence in the last year alone, yet 2 in 3 will not tell anyone about the abuse. The reasons for non-disclosure are manifold; fear of reprisal by their abuser or parents, distrust or fear of disbelief by law enforcement, conflicting feelings about the relationship, lack of awareness about available protections.

The most dangerous time for a victim is often when they are seeking help or trying to leave without support. Often their abusive situation is facilitated by their isolation from trusted school teachers, police, parents, or friends and their knowledge gaps about how their situation can be remedied.

Day One Program: A Holistic Strategy for Ending Youth Domestic Violence

Day One, a NYC based non-profit helping victims of teen violence through outreach, education, and policy advocacy, works to raise awareness and support resources to address the issue. Founded in 2003, Day One has educated over 70,000 youth and adult professionals about healthy relationships, the warning signs of abuse, and how to help someone who is experiencing abuse in their relationship.

Connecting victims to counseling, case management, and legal services is how Day One makes a difference. Often victims will call domestic violence hotlines and ask for help, but lack the support services necessary to follow-through. Day One’s program is designed to ensure the best possible outcome for the victim e.g. pursuing protective orders against abusers and making sure victims receive counseling/therapy to avoid engaging in future abusive relationships.

Advocacy on behalf of victims’ rights also forms a core part of Day One’s strategy. In 2008, Day One successfully lobbied the NYC Department of Education to include a dating abuse definition and designated response in its disciplinary code. It also brings its unique understanding of youth domestic violence to training programs for judges and law enforcement. In 2012, Day One was invited to train Family and Juvenile Court judges nationwide about the dynamics of teen dating violence and special needs of young survivors.

In conjunction with October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Day One will lead a series of workshops for social workers (CEUs available):

Director of Legal Services, Andrew Sta Ana, is also at New York Law School to address cyberbullying and technology abuse through the Tyler Clementi Institute for Cyberbullying at New York Law School.

The Equality Indicators spoke with Michele Paolella, Director of Social Services & Training, and Natalie Rentas, Senior Staff Social Worker at Day One about their approach to ending youth domestic violence.

Who is most at risk of becoming a victim of youth domestic violence? Is there a profile of the average victim?

Michele: Statistics show that females’ ages 16-24 are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group – at a rate almost triple the national average. In fact, among female victims of intimate partner violence, 94% of those victimized by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend are between the ages of 16-19. However, teen dating violence does not discriminate and runs across race, gender, and socioeconomic lines.  Transgender women of color could be at the highest risk of intimate partner violence.

What keeps victims from asking for help?

Natalie: There are many reasons why victims and survivors wouldn’t ask for help, and every individual situation is so unique that it would be almost impossible to list them all. Among them is fear of stigma or disbelief by adults in positions of power (law enforcement, teachers, parents, etc.), and young people are often worried about being singled out and about what it means if they come forward as someone who experiences violence, especially if the young person is in school with their aggressor, or if the aggressor happens to be well known and well liked. Sometimes young people aren’t allowed to be in relationships and coming forward about violence they experience would mean to confess to breaking their parents’ rules or doing something they weren’t supposed to. This can be especially true for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans youth. Another reason could be that they don’t understand their experience to be violent, so they may not be at a point where they can acknowledge that they need help. This can directly relate to a lack of role models for healthy relationships or a lack of education regarding what a healthy relationship looks like. Unfortunately, there is a culture of violence in our communities and our country that is experienced as a norm for young people.

Do schools treat youth domestic violence as seriously as they should?

Michele: There is an increasing awareness about dating abuse and sexual assault among school age youth, and schools want to help keep their students safe. That said, there are a lot of challenges that students face when they are in the same school with an abusive partner. First and foremost, schools often don’t recognize that there is an abusive relationship at all. When there is abuse, their response is often to only address the issue if violence occurs on school property. Also, in New York, there is no guidance about what school personnel should do if there is an order of protection between students in the same school. The list goes on and on of ways that students who attend the same school as their abusive partner face additional barriers to getting help.

What role does technology play in this issue?

Natalie: Essentially, young people today are growing up with and on technology. It is the first generation that has grown up with constant and early access to smart phones. The use of technology is so prevalent in the day to day for young people that it has become a primary tool for inflicting harm. More and more, we receive cases of young people experiencing threats or verbal abuse via social media, ex-partners sharing intimate photos and even fake profiles being created as a tactic for stalking or impersonation. Laws can’t keep up with technological changes. Since so many young people have their social community online, asking them to just disconnect can further isolate them from their positive peers and potential help. Technology itself isn’t inherently positive or negative, of course, so a lot of resources and support can also be found online.

What have you learned from working with domestic violence abuse victims?

Natalie: I have learned that no two cases look quite the same. That domestic violence comes in all forms, some of which wouldn’t even be recognizable to anyone but the survivors, and that sometimes intuition is key to helping a survivor. I’ve learned that “helping” a survivor really means supporting them through a process of healing and ensuring their safety, physically, mentally and emotionally. I’ve also learned how important the work of advocates really is because we face institutions with unfair and extremely biased rules and opinions of who is really a survivor or what survivors should do or what they should look like. We’ve got a world of challenges against us, survivors and advocates alike, yet we strive and survive.

What has been your most rewarding experience at Day One?

Natalie: One of most rewarding experiences at Day One actually came a few months into starting my work here. I’m a veteran to working with survivors of intimate partner violence, but was very new to working with youth, and I received a counseling referral for a young lady who was 19 years old. She had presented as having experienced intimate partner violence both emotionally and physically but one thing she said to me was “my bruises healed but my heart hurts and my mind is heavy every day.” She expressed how the emotional abuse had affected her in so many more ways than she could ever have expected. We worked together in a therapeutic setting for many months and during our last session she stated to me “I was going crazy when I came to see you. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” Just one sentence reminded me of why I’m here and why I will continue to do the work that I do.

What would you tell someone suffering in silence from domestic violence?

Natalie: I would tell them that there are people and agencies to hear them out and to support them in any way that we can. I’d want them to know that regardless of how challenging or impossible something seems, social workers and advocates are available to make an extra step towards finding a solution to any potential obstacles that may arise. I’d want them to know that they are respected and trusted as the experts of their own lives and that they don’t have to go through this experience alone.

Photo credit: Natalie Rentas, Day One’s Senior Staff Social Worker