Teens may not be the first demographic to come to mind when thinking about solving the problem of domestic and sexual violence, but for Becky Vermeire, who runs a domestic violence agency in rural Missouri, they are key.
“The way that we are going to prevent [domestic violence] is working with our kids,” Vermeire said. “If we are really going to make a dent in what we are doing for the future, it’s that prevention piece.”
To address that, Vermeire’s organization, the Crisis Center of Taney County, is reaching out to young people with a new, teen-friendly tool many larger communities do not have yet: a locally staffed crisis text line.
The Crisis Center already works with the youth of its community – teaching them about healthy relationships and abusive behaviors at in-school classes. But now, they can provide kids with resources and answers to questions through the medium most teens are already using.
“If we're talking high school students, if we're talking middle school students, they don’t talk anymore. They don’t pick up the phone and have phone conversations,” Vermeire said.
Learning to talk about violence in relationships
Domestic violence rates are high in Taney County (population 52,000). There were 559 reported incidents in 2014 alone. That’s more than one incident in every 100 residents.
The impetus for the outreach to teens was one the Center’s employees, Sunny Roberts, an educator and long-time Taney County resident who attended a small local high school here.
Last year, she helped create a one-day workshop on sexual and dating violence prevention for 7th, 8th and 9th graders in the county. She feels passionately about this work because of her own experiences: She was raped as a high schooler here.
“I used to say to myself, one of these days I am going to be in a gymnasium full of kids and talking about sexual violence and preventing this from happening,” Roberts said.
Roberts added that she didn’t’ talk about what happened – she didn’t tell anyone – and she struggled with the after effects for years. But now through her work with the Crisis Center, she’s beginning to heal.
She believes teaching teenagers to communicate about these issues is essential.
“It’s so so important that we begin to talk about this at a young age and encourage them to know that even if they are experiencing these things, they have the ability to overcome them,” she said.
Her classes help kids learn about how to identify abusive behaviors in relationships, and where they can turn for help.
Roberts says some teens in her classes tell her they’re already experiencing violence. “To look on the faces and to see that they're already experiencing rape and abuse at such a young age has been trying,” she said. ”You want to go in and give this message: ‘If you’ve been a victim, reach out for help and someone’s going to help you.’”
Roberts and Vermeire think the text line will help kids do that. Anyone can now text this anonymous line, 717-744-TEXT (8398), and ask about anything – relationship issues, help in a crisis or just the local resources that are available.
Making getting help easier
Though this is the only locally-staffed crisis text line in the state, there are some similar national services that have proven this method is effective with teens. The Crisis Text Line has exchanged over 8 million text messages since it began in 2013. And Love-is-Respect reached over 41,000 kids last year through phone, chat or texts.
But there are additional benefits to having a local service, Vermeire said. Teens only have to confide in one local person, and that same person can connect them with help right away - help that’s basically in their backyard.
She said the text line will be using the same trained staff as their phone hotline, and with this new service if a teen is having a problem they can now ask for help in a way that makes them more at ease.
“They could reach out and receive services for that,” Vermeire said. “In the same way that our crisis hotline is safe, confidential.”
Brian Pinero, the chief program officer for Love-is-respect, said texting can be a better option in rural areas.
“There’s not always internet out there,” Pinero said. “So text messaging is the simplest way to communicate.”
He also said that, in his experience, young people aren’t any more likely to report abuse than adults, but they seem more willing to enter conversations about “healthy relationships.”
“That is a level where they can kind of start the conversation because I don’t think a lot of people know what a victim is in domestic violence - or dating violence - much less, [realize] ‘I am the victim,’” Pinero said.
Vermeire says they’ll promote the text line to students during Roberts’ classes and advertise around town. They hope it will be more convenient and easier to find than national services.
While the text line is intended as a way for the Crisis Center of Taney County to reach teens, Vermeire said she hopes that other, adult victims will also use it.
“I don’t think that it’s going to be only teenagers that take advantage of it,” Vermeire said. “My preference—and I’m much older than a teenager—is to text somebody. So I mean, I think that is kind of the way of the future anyways.”
Roberts said she believes her classes are already making a difference due to the feedback she is getting from students in her domestic and sexual violence classes. She says she hopes the text line will give kids yet another way to reach out.
“I’ve had a lot of students say they have had Ah-ha moments,” Roberts said. “I’ve had students tell me that, you know, that they're going to reach out and talk to someone.”