WASHINGTON – Sami Hightshoe started dating her boyfriend when she was 14 – a high school freshman – and he was 16.
Soon after going to homecoming,he began to tell her who she could see and what she could wear. He checked her phone messages and eventually began sexually abusing her.
Sami's parents noticed she was becoming withdrawn and losing her bubbly personality. They talked to her about it,but she was too scared to tell the truth.
A new report released Tuesday found that tweens – girls and boys – ages 11 to 14 experience a significant level of abusive relationships.
“I'm here to tell other teens they're not alone,” Sami,now 16,said at a news conference.
Sami and her family,from Mt. Carmel,Ill.,got a restraining order against her boyfriend after she broke up with him on the last day of school,but no charges were filed.
Teenage Research Unlimited conducted the survey,the first to provide data on tweens,for Liz Claiborne Inc,loveisrespect.org,sponsored by the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. The study looks at three groups: tweens; teens,ages 15 to 18,and parents.
The survey found that one in five tweens ages 13 and 14 in relationships said they knew a friend who had been struck by an angry boyfriend or girlfriend. Forty percent of tweens ages 11 and 12 said they know a friend who had experienced verbal abuse in a relationship.
The survey also found that teens who have sex at a young age are more likely to be involved in abusive relationships when they are older.
Twenty nine percent of teens ages 15 to 18 said their boyfriends or girlfriends had called them names or put them down. That abuse rose to 58 percent for teens who had sex by age 14.
The study also found that most parents do not know as much as they think they do about their tweens' relationships.
Twenty percent of tweens said their parents know little or nothing about their dating relationships,while only 6 percent of parents said they know little or nothing.
The survey also found that,although 26 percent of parents said having sex is part of tween relationships,only 7 percent said they believed their own child had gone further than kissing.
“We have to stop minimizing,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller,assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine and a research consultant in medicine and pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “We have to recognize it is occurring in younger children,and it is not OK.”
Teenage Research Unlimited did the survey by e-mailing people to respond to an online survey. They surveyed 1,043 tweens with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points,523 parents of tweens with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points and 626 teens with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Teenage Research Unlimited partnered with Luth Research,a leading sample provider,to find research participants chosen to reflect adequate representation of age,gender,ethnicity and geographic region. Luth Research has an online database of people from more than 400,000 households that are recruited online from a number of different places.
Liz Claiborne Inc. promotes education about dating abuse with a curriculum called Love Is Not Abuse provided free to about 3,500 schools and organizations.
State attorneys general are also involved. Patrick Lynch,Rhode Island attorney general,introduced a resolution that was unanimously passed by the National Association of Attorneys General in June that encourages states to work with public schools to teach about teen dating violence.
“Domestic violence,I think,is a plague to our nation,” Lynch said. “Information education is empowerment.”
Lynch also created the Lindsay Ann Burke Act in Rhode Island,effective in 2007,that requires all schools to teach about teen dating violence. He got involved after meeting teachers Ann and Chris Burke,the parents of Lindsay Burke,who was murdered at age 23 by her abusive boyfriend in 2005.
“No one in our family had been educated about abuse,and consequently,we did not recognize the early warning signs,” Chris Burke said.