By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - When representatives of SafeSpace start their outreach program for teens and preteens, they ask if the children have known people involved in abusive relationships. In most classes, just about all the children raise their hands.
The group doesn't track the number of children involved in violent relationships, but when it starts to discuss violence among intimate partners, staff said both victims and perpetrators emerge in the program.
SafeSpace, which shelters victims of domestic violence, began a prevention program in 2008 as part of the Florida Coalition against Domestic Violence.
As part of that program, it teaches the "youth outreach understanding relationship" course to children ages 12 to 17.
"We do, in fact, have reports from young people who have been in violent relationships, both perpetrating and experiencing it," said SafeSpace CEO Jill Borowicz. "Our hope, and the intent of the program, is to talk to young people about violence and the dynamics of healthy relationships, in the hope of preventing them from ever getting involved in violent relationships or becoming the perpetrators of violence."
She added, "What we see and what is reported to us by folks who work with young people, such as teachers, is that many of these young people are involved in dating relations and in some of these relationships there is violence in all the forms physical, emotional, verbal, psychological."
A good starting point therefore, when working with teens, is to help them understand the definition of violence.
"Many are involved in (violence) but they don't necessarily articulate it as violence. They'll say things like, 'It's uncomfortable. I didn't like it,'" Ms. Borowicz said.
"Traditionally, what we see with many of the young people who participate in the program is not fully acknowledging verbal and emotional abuse as significant and impactful. Many folks in the room say violence is bad, but sometimes they still qualify it. They see violence on a sort of a continuum."
Participants might agree, for instance, that it's wrong to beat another person or stay in a relationship where this occurs. But they're less sure about pushing, shoving or volatile acts after one partner has had a difficult day.
"Many perpetrators say they don't even realize they're being violent. They become desensitized to it because they're so saturated," Ms. Borowicz said.
SafeSpace, working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Martin County last month completed an eight-week course on intimate partner violence for teens and preteens. The course included components on empathy, tools for identifying healthy and unhealthy relationships and guidance on setting boundaries.
"We're not targeting the so-called at-risk children. We're trying to change the thinking about what it means to have a nonviolent relationship. It's really sort of a systemic approach." Ms. Borowicz said. "We believe it all comes back to changing the individual thinking."