TeenSafe Helps Prevent Dating Abuse

TeenSafe leaders gather at their end-of-year celebration.
Photos courtesy of JF&CS
TeenSafe leaders gather at their end-of-year celebration.

By Tana Goldberg

Published August 14, 2014, issue of August 14, 2014.

One out of three teenagers has experienced abuse — emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, cultural or financial — in a dating relationship. But in a recent survey, most Jewish teenagers expressed disbelief that this occurs among their peers, replying: “I feel as American Jews we have been brought up with a set of ethics and morals which make that number lower” and “I feel that the Jewish community is close and trustworthy and I think a relationship between two Jews would not experience abuse.”

Sadly, dating abuse is just as prevalent among Jewish teens, according to Elizabeth Schon Vainer, Journey to Safety director at Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) in Waltham. “When we ask Jewish teenagers, ‘who is aware of dating abuse,’ one in three answers yes,” she said. “We know this is so serious, yet kids don’t tell adults. There are teenagers who have the capacity to do something about this problem. They just need to learn how to help a friend or themselves.”

Three years ago, JF&CS developed the TeenSafe program, with funding from the Boston Jewish Community Women’s Fund, and recruited a group of girls to reach out to their peers to educate them about the warning signs of an abusive relationship. “Prevention is core to our mission,” said Schon Vainer.

TeenSafe is a leadership development program for Jewish high school girls with two integrated goals: 1) preventing domestic abuse by reaching young people before and during their first dating experiences and 2) cultivating leadership skills and confidence among young women in the Jewish community, preparing them to become leaders of social change.

Hannah Hiam (left) and Dorothy Wigon led a conversation with their peers about healthy relationships through TeenSafe.
Hannah Hiam (left) and Dorothy Wigon led a conversation with their peers about healthy relationships through TeenSafe.

Hannah Hiam of Newton, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Gann Academy, has been an active participant in TeenSafe for three years. “The mission of the program spoke to me,” she said. “I feel strongly about women’s rights, especially the right to your own body and to your happiness.”

Hannah spent a year going through monthly trainings, which helped her learn the warning signs of abuse and further developed her leadership skills. The trainings are led by Sara Berkowitz, JF&CS youth educator and TeenSafe adviser. “These girls go from being participants to becoming facilitators and role models for other teens,” said Berkowitz. “They take what they’ve learned and pass it on. They’re passionate about this.”

When she first joined TeenSafe, Hannah was not aware of dating abuse. “But as I got older and lived through high school, I learned how to spot an abusive relationship,” she said.

For the past two years, Hannah has been going out in the community — to temples, church groups, after-school programs — and leading workshops on teen dating abuse.

“As I’ve gained skills on such a sensitive topic, I can speak about it and raise awareness,” she said.

A TeenSafe workshop, led by Berkowitz and one or two teen leaders, typically starts with an icebreaker. Then the teen leader puts up six blank pieces of paper – one for each category of abuse. This leads to a conversation about abuse, followed by role-playing with a script to illustrate warning signs of abuse.

Although Berkowitz reports that some teenagers still challenge what they learn at a workshop, many others come up to her or the teen leaders afterward and say, “I’m thinking more about the situation I’m in and looking at it in a different way.”

“Ultimately, I’ve noticed a shift in what people think of as abuse,” said Berkowitz, “which is actually any kind of controlling behavior. That’s the shift we’re trying to teach and what people are picking up on.”

So far, 32 girls have been trained as leaders, and 691 teens have attended TeenSafe workshops on topics of healthy relationships and teen dating abuse. In addition, 287 parents, teachers and youth advisers have attended peer leader presentations or consulted with staff about integrating the TeenSafe program into their curriculum or addressing teen dating abuse in their school or organization’s policies and procedures. TeenSafe workshops are now incorporated into the annual curriculum and schedule of several Jewish youth programs, including Gann Academy, Prozdor Academy and The Diller Fellows Program.

Results are evaluated through post-workshop surveys. One TeenSafe participant wrote, “My friend was in an abusive relationship and her boyfriend was mentally and emotionally abusing her. I gave her advice and tried to show her how it’s not okay. She ended up breaking up with him.”

Parents, too, are enthusiastic about the program. A teen leader’s mother responded to the survey by writing, “The TeenSafe project offers my daughter a place to learn about healthy relationships and female empowerment in an informal and fun setting with other girls of the same age. I highly recommend this program for every Jewish high school girl. As a parent, it is comforting to know that she is learning safe practices and the warning signs of unhealthy relationships and dating patterns for her own relationships, as well as others. It also provides her with invaluable leadership opportunities as a mentor to new members to the program.”

TeenSafe is currently accepting applications for new teen leaders, who will begin training in the fall. “We are looking for high school girls who are interested in the topic of teen dating abuse and who show some passion about making a difference,” said Berkowitz. “They must be comfortable talking about the topic of dating abuse, how it impacts teens and ways they can support themselves and their peers if they are experiencing abuse.”

For an application or more information, contact Sara Berkowitz at sberkowitz@jfcsboston.org.

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