SEABROOK – The Prince George’s County Family Justice Center, an initiative of the Circuit Court, has launched a program in collaboration with a local organization fighting domestic violence to empower teenagers to recognize and end dating violence.
The Teen Empowerment Program (TEP) will include workshops, group discussions and support groups about teen dating violence for people ages 13 to 19. The Family Justice Center is partnering with An Earthly Embrace, an Oxon Hill-based organization that helps people in domestic violence situations.
“Sadly, teen dating violence has become a growing problem in communities across the United States,” said Denise McCain, director of the Family Justice Center. “With TEP, teenagers will become better aware of the subtle and overt signs of dating violence with the goal of identifying them and leaving a relationship that is harmful.”
McCain said people might start dating when they are as young as 11, and there are many misconceptions about the prevalence of teen dating violence.
“It happens more frequently than we realize at that age,” McCain said. “Ideally, if we can stop it before it continues later in life, then perhaps we can be successful in our mission to eliminate, or at least prevent domestic violence.”
Cynthia Jewel Eugene, founder and executive director of An Earthly Embrace, said dating violence can start with verbal abuse and may expand to other forms of control and power, including physical abuse.
“It might even start with verbal abuse where the conversations are not healthy,” Eugene said. “It’s constant going back and forth with the insults, and so forth.”
She said problematic behavioral problems people express in elementary and middle school are often socially accepted.
“When I was younger, it was a thing of if he hit you, that means he likes you. There’s a little bit of acceptance and lack of education,” Eugene said. “We look at the history, and we look at the patterns. It’s not normal, and it’s not okay. It’s not okay at all.”
The Family Justice Center has other projects related to healthy teen relationships, including The Glow Up Teen Empowerment Summit, scheduled for March 31. The event will have separate sessions for teens and parents.
Eugene said teaching teens about dating violence might be the only “true way to break the cycle” of domestic violence, particularly for teens who grow up in a home where abuse takes place.
“The behaviors they see become part of their lives and almost become normal,” she said. “As they become involved in partnerships and dating, they mimic these behaviors and carry it on.”
Eugene explained these negative behaviors might include telling the other partner how to dress, to leave school, to give them their earnings or to text them at specific times throughout the day.
“We hope that they are empowered not to be afraid anymore to speak about it,” Eugene said. “We want the fear to start to go away in speaking about what’s happening. We want them to be able to reach out to the different resources that are available, and we want them to walk away with being okay with being themselves.”