Forum to teach warning signs of dating violence

1 in 4 adolescents in U.S. report some kind of abuse

  • Annie Burton is the new director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.
Annie Burton is the new director of the Domestic Violence Center… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 12, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Propped up on her elbows while lying on her bed with cell phone in hand, the teen on a poster looks troubled as she reads this text message: "Sry I gt mad n lost cntrl last nyt."

The confused young woman in the poster is poised to accept her boyfriend's apology for abusing her on their date the night before, explained Annie Louise Burton, who took the reins of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County on Jan. 31.

But such forgiveness can set in motion an insidious cluster of behaviors known as dating violence, said Burton, who moved to Ellicott City from Baltimore two weeks ago to be president and CEO of the nonprofit organization.

Across the country, one in four adolescents reports physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse, she said.

To help curb this trend, DVC will co-sponsor "It's Time to Talk: A Forum on Dating Violence" on Wednesday, Feb. 16. The event for all ages will focus on teaching the warning signs of dating violence, a potentially explosive problem that's more pervasive than many students or parents realize.

Nationwide, one in three teens report knowing someone who has been physically hurt by a partner who hit, punched, kicked, slapped or choked, she said.

These violent behaviors can lead to such physical, psychological and societal consequences as low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse, incarceration and even death, she said.

"There is nothing romantic about getting a bruise from someone you're dating," reads the description of dating violence on the center's website. "Yet many people confuse jealousy and even arm-twisting as signs of affection."

Nearly a third of America's college students report experiencing dating violence with a former partner, and a fifth report that a current partner has inflicted violence on them, Burton said.

The Office of Student Life at Howard Community College agreed to co-sponsor the forum with DVC "to provide overall awareness," said Nancy Santos Gainer, HCC spokeswoman. "The college offers a wide range of programs that are designed to empower people with information so they can make informed decisions."

The forum will include representatives from DVC and HCC, as well as the Howard County Police Department, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, the Mean Girls Project and the Kristin Mitchell Foundation, named for a young woman who was killed by an abusive boyfriend.

Survivors of dating violence will speak about their experiences, followed by three breakout sessions for young adults, teens and pre-teens, and parents, teachers and service providers.

Burton, who will offer closing remarks, said she knows firsthand about emotional and economic abuse as a survivor of domestic violence. These two types of abuse are more common in middle- and upper-middle-class communities such as Howard County, she said.

Raised in a "desolate housing project" in Boston, Burton said she was forced to learn survival skills early in life and credits her personal strength to her mother, who was an outspoken activist.

Burton went on to graduate with honors from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in social sciences and worked as a senior administrator at the university for 15 years. But at some point in her 20 years of marriage, Burton's life and outlook changed drastically.

"People thought we were the perfect family," she said, acknowledging that friends and relatives were shocked when she ended her marriage.

"Now I've been freed from covert domestic violence, and I have an identity that is independent of another individual's," she said.

Someone becomes a victim of domestic violence every 15 seconds, and three victims lose their lives to domestic violence each day, according to the center's website.

Nearly 2,900 county residents made more than 3,900 calls seeking DVC's help during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2004, when nearly 2,000 residents reached out to the center.

To share what she's learned about domestic violence, Burton is writing a self-help book that she's titled, "Silent Sufferers: When You Can't See the Bruises."

"Emotional abuse is difficult because it lingers," she said. "You want to protect your family, but you're secretly hurting your family and yourself by staying in place."

The best analogy she can offer to anyone having difficulty finding the courage to leave an abusive marriage "when it's so much easier to stay," is that adult passengers traveling on a plane with children are told to first put an oxygen mask on themselves in an emergency so they're able to care for their kids.

"I was of no value to my family when I was medicating myself just to numb my feelings," she said.

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