Adults aren't sole victims of domestic violence -
Published Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 6:34 pm
Adults aren't sole victims of domestic violence

The girl's boyfriend beat her with a belt, raped her and tried to strangle her.

All before they had graduated from a Millard high school.

Now in college, she considers herself fortunate. She made it out of the relationship alive.

Each year in Douglas County, two to four domestic violence victims die at the hands of their tormentors — a number so stubbornly consistent, it can't be fully explained by the Domestic Violence Council and other groups.

The vast majority of the homicide victims are adults, as in the Sept. 17 slaying of Trudy McKee, 43, a registered nurse who moved to Omaha several months ago. Her boyfriend, Robert W. Grant, 32, is charged with criminal homicide and use of a weapon during the commission of a felony in connection with the slaying.

But young women embarking on their first relationships aren't immune.

Melissa Rodriguez was strangled Aug. 15 at the age of 19 and left in an open grave in a South Omaha cemetery. Family and friends have said they urged her to end a troubled relationship with her accused killer, Mikael Loyd, also 19. He has been charged with first-­degree murder.

Melanie Koontz's one-time boyfriend, Justin Lenz, pleaded guilty last year to second-­degree murder, admitting he had strangled the Benson High sophomore on May 14, 2012, below a bridge at 78th and Blondo Streets. Both were 16 at the time.

Although these deaths represent the extreme, domestic violence among the young is more prevalent than parents, educators and even teenagers realize, experts say.

Domestic violence among teens is thought to be three times the rate of abuse among adults, said Amy Richardson, executive director of the Women's Center for Advancement, formerly the YWCA. The exact numbers are difficult to determine because young victims are less likely than adults to report abuse to authorities, she said.

But 9.4 percent of high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the 12 months prior to a national intimate partner and sexual violence survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010.

RESPECT, an area theater group that focuses on dating violence and bullying, has found higher rates among the Nebraska and Iowa teens participating in its surveys. As many as one in five reported on RESPECT surveys that they had been in an abusive relationship, said Dr. Patricia Newman, a local child psychologist and director of the group. Last year the survey included about 800 teens.

“Teenagers are really vulnerable to their emotional and physical boundaries being crossed into abuse,” Newman said. “They believe if their boyfriend or girlfriend is acting that way ... it's because they love them.”

If they confide in anyone, it tends to be in other teens, who are equally ill-prepared to deal with abuse, she said.

“Adults usually have other adults that can help them and give them feedback. Teenagers go to their peers, not their parents, for help.”

The Millard high school student decided she couldn't go to her parents. They had a rule of no dating until age 17. She was only 14 when she met her boyfriend. So she kept the relationship a secret for nearly two years, lying to her parents that she had sports practices or outings with girlfriends.

When the parents noticed bruises, she blamed them on a sports injury. When her grades slipped, she made up excuses.

“We didn't really get along,” she said. “They knew I was being secretive, but they didn't know from what.”

In the beginning, her boyfriend was all sweetness and attentiveness. He walked her to classes, showered her with compliments, told her he loved her.

“He made me feel wanted,” she said.

So much so that she didn't see it as abuse when he insisted that she spend less and less time with friends. About six months into the relationship, he got mad about the time she spent on her sports. He pushed her against her school locker and put his hands around her neck.

Students standing nearby did nothing, she said. From there, she said, the abuse escalated — and moved behind closed doors.

The student didn't leave the relationship because she “felt like nobody else would ever want me.”

She tells her story to area high school students in the hope of helping other victims. She recounts being beaten by a belt. When she refused to consent to sex, her boyfriend raped her, she said.

“I was afraid of him, but he was the only one I had. I lost everyone.”

Dr. Mary-Beth Muskin, director of counseling at Omaha South, said young victims aren't identifiable by any particular characteristic. Even if they are involved in school, seem outgoing and confident, and have loving parents, teens can find themselves in abusive relationships, she said.

Educators are legally required to call police if they see or suspect physical abuse. But abusers, even teenage ones, are good at hiding their actions, Muskin said.

So teachers are trained to watch for warning signs. In victims, this includes personality changes, slipping grades, depression, isolation. Warning signs in abusers can include name-calling, anger, jealousy and possessiveness.

“That kind of guy doesn't want an audience,” Muskin said. “Usually that kind of guy isn't overt until (the abuse) gets pretty far along.”

Omaha Police Sgt. Kim Retzlaff said parents should educate their children on what constitutes a healthy dating relationship. Many abusers were abused themselves.

“If a teen is never told (what's healthy), or it is not modeled for them, how are they to know what is acceptable and what is not?” Retzlaff said.

Richardson, the Women's Center for Advancement director, encourages young women to reach out for help. They need to talk to their parents, friends, guidance counselors, police — anybody trustworthy, she said.

“They have to reach out to someone,” Richardson said.

Several agencies, including the women's center, have domestic abuse hotlines for victims who fear coming forward to friends and family.

The center's hotline received 3,218 calls in 2012. It had already received 3,270 calls this year as of late September.

The Millard student finally broke up with her boyfriend at school — in front of students and teachers, in case he got violent. That night, he threatened suicide, so she told him she would go back to him.

The boy dumped her the next day.

“He wanted the control,” she said.

The boyfriend is now a college student himself. He's never been criminally charged and could not be reached for comment.

The Millard student later talked about her experience for the first time in a student health class. She said several girls came up to her afterward and said they were in similar relationships.

She also has told her parents. They were upset at first but now encourage her to talk about her experience.

The support helped her move on, but she said it's still difficult. She is embarrassed by the scars on her body left by the belt. Those scars and her emotional scars leave her afraid to date again, she said.

“I think it will always be with me.”

Finding Help

» Women's Center for Advancement hotline: 402-345-7273; Spanish speakers, 402-672-7118
» Domestic Violence Council: » RESPECT:

Signs to watch for

Friends and family of teenagers should be alert to these signs of a violent relationship:

» Unexplained bruises or injuries
» Changes in a teen's behavior; a relationship that isolates the teen from family, friends and school activities
» Mood swings
» The boyfriend/girlfriend is jealous, possessive, always checking in, putting down partner
» Explosive temper in either person

Source: Omaha Police Department

What to do

The WCA's Green Dot program partners with colleges and organizations to empower students and faculty to speak up if they see domestic violence on campus. For more information, call 402-345-6555, ext. 236

Honor Victims

A candlelight vigil to remember victims of domestic violence is scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1819 Farnam St. The Domestic Violence Council and other organizations are sponsoring the second-annual event.

Contact the writer: Maggie O'Brien

maggie.o'    |   402-444-3100    |  

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