Guest Column: Parents, community can help break cycle of teen-dating violence
John S. Leonardo Special To The Arizona Daily Star
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:00 am

U.S attorney for Arizona - Submitted Photo

If you are a parent of a teenager, chances are one of your teenager's friends, or maybe your own son or daughter, will be in an abusive relationship.

To raise awareness and focus efforts on breaking the cycle of violence in teen dating, I encourage parents to regularly check in with their teenagers who may be involved in a romantic relationship.

The fact is teen dating violence is often hidden and unreported. Not only do most teens lack the experience to navigate romantic relationships, often they are also unable to voice their feelings or communicate when emotional situations take a turn for the worse. Even more frightening is that if adolescents find the courage to tell their friends about being in an abusive relationship, statistics show that more times than not, their friends don't know what to do to help them.

While the nation's understanding of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking has increased, so too has our awareness that these forms of violence often begin during adolescence.

The pattern of abuse, however, can start much earlier. Studies show that children who are victimized or witness violence may carry this experience with them to the playground, classroom and later to teen dating and adult relationships. Every year, millions of children and adolescents across the United States are victimized and exposed to violence in their homes and communities, and often suffer severe long-term emotional and physical consequences.

When these problems remain unaddressed, children are at higher risk for school failure, substance abuse, repeat victimization and, perhaps, most disturbingly, perpetrating violent behavior later in their own lives. It is our responsibility to address this serious issue and protect our children. As professionals, parents, educators, political and business leaders, we must teach about the reward of healthy relationships, as well as model positive, nonviolent relationships in our own lives.

Intervention and prevention efforts are key elements to stopping the cycle of abuse and are among the highest priorities at the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office in Arizona. Attorney General Eric Holder's Defending Childhood initiative is leveraging existing resources across the department to focus on preventing, reducing, and more fully understanding childhood exposure to violence.

In support of this initiative, the department's Office on Violence Against Women awarded $5.6 million to 17 organizations that support services for children and caretakers, including direct counseling, advocacy and mentoring for children or youths exposed to domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

That office also administers several youth-focused grant programs. Locally, it has awarded grants of more than $38.6 million to groups in Arizona since 2007, including more than $7 million to agencies in Pima County such as Pima County Superior Court, Tucson City Court, the Pasqua Yaqui Tribe and the Tohono O'Odham Nation.

These federal funds provide opportunities for our communities to increase collaboration among victim service providers, community groups and schools to help teens develop the skills to maintain healthy and rewarding relationships. Through these partnerships, agencies can focus on educating the community - including children and teens - about identifying the signs of abuse, and assist them in locating services if they or someone they know is experiencing a physically or emotionally abusive relationship.

I encourage everybody, especially parents, to provide an environment to talk about developing and maintaining positive, healthy and violence-free relationships.

John S. Leonardo is the United States attorney, District of Arizona.