As a 15-year-old flattered by the love and attention of her first serious boyfriend, Monica Maya didn't worry about his escalating control over her life.
But then the beatings began. Carefully avoiding her face, he left bruises on her back and arms.
“The arguments would escalate (and) he would punch me,” recalls Maya, now 18, who is finishing her senior year of high school in Brooklyn. “It was bad from the start; I just didn't see it that way.”
Eventually, Maya's mother figured out what was going on and made her go to the police. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested, and Maya receive an order of protection from Kings County Criminal Court—which may have saved her life. After violating the order, her ex-boyfriend was forced to leave the GED program he took at Maya's high school.
Maya was, in some ways, lucky.
In most U.S. states, young unmarried and childless people can count on little to no protection from the justice system when they are exposed to violent relationships.
Only 20 states including New York, Texas and New Jersey, offer orders of protection to youths who aren't married or living together, or who do not have a child in common.
Even fewer allow teens to file for such an order without parental consent.
Orders —many granted without parental consent—are crucial to stopping teens from remaining in violent relationships, according to teen and domestic violence advocates who are trying to persuade legislators around the country to follow the example of New York and other states.
As Maya put it: “It made me feel safe to know that there are some things that can help, even if it's just a piece of paper.”
An order of protection is obtained two ways: through the criminal court, usually after an arrest; or through a civil court, usually family court.
Teens who are being abused sometimes don't want to get involved with law enforcement for numerous reasons: fear of losing friends, of being labeled a snitch. Or they may have a child in common and don't want the father in jail.
In New York, they have nevertheless been eligible for civil orders of protection since 2008, when the state allowed family courts to issue protection orders to couples without a child in common and without requiring parental consent.
It took more than 20 years of lobbying by advocacy groups to get that far.
“We were initially approached by the LGBT community, whose members had no access to orders of protection if they were in an abusive relationship, to get them protections through civil court,” says Amy Barasch, the former Executive Director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
Barasch, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at SUNY Albany, adds: “More people got on board, including the community that supports teens and others who didn't have access to civil remedies, allowing for a lot of new litigants.”
For adult victims, orders of protection against abusive spouses, have provided documented relief in numerous research studies—though not completely foolproof —for domestic violence victims.
“An order of protection is an imperfect tool,” said says Andrew Sta. Ana, supervising attorney at Day One, a New York City based not-for-profit that advocates on behalf of young people who are either experiencing intimate partner violence, or at risk of being abused. “But I'd rather have civil protection orders than not have them in the toolbox.”
The number of those affected is unclear, but figures suggest that such youth experience high rates of domestic abuse.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2011, ten percent of high school students were intentionally harmed by a significant other; 1 in 5 women, and nearly 1 in 7 men, who have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.
In February, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $12.6 million to 20 community groups in an effort to reduce teen violence.
But along with greater usage of protection orders for teens comes issues that arise while working with the youth population.
Parents, educators and authority figures tend not to take violence between juvenile couples seriously. In response, teens often don't say when something is going wrong.
“People are realizing the importance of this, we are getting the message out and there are steps being taken towards prevention, but there is lots to still do in teaching teens to come forward,” says Tonya Turner, Director of Legal Services for Break The Cycle, a national not-for-profit based in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. that focuses on teen dating violence
Break the Cycle, which advocates for more tools—such as civil protection orders—to prevent teen violence, also issues State Law Report Cards, which lists different legal protections by state.
Recent research analyzed 1,200 civil orders of protection sought in New York family court in 2009 and 2010—the first two full years after a state law made it possible for teens to secure orders.
While all the victims were teens, the average age of their abusers was nearly 21 years old.
The study, led by Andy Klein, a senior research associate for Advocates for Human Potential, a Massachusetts firm providing technical assistance and research to governments and community based agencies, noted there was a greater chance of abuse if the ages of the victims were far apart.
The majority of the teen petitioners only received temporary order of protections. These orders last on average a month or so.
Researchers found this was because New York family courts were ill-equipped to handle the caseload: they didn't have complete criminal information on the abusers, weren't able to serve the order of protections, and continually postponed hearings.
As a result a little more than a quarter of the respondents abused their victims from one to three years after the initial petition, the study noted.
But some of the most basic problems related to the teenage culture.
Mixing court and youth culture was not going to be easy, researchers warned.
“A lot of girls were very ambivalent about getting orders because they were labeled as a snitch,” said researcher Klein, who plans to continue researching the effectiveness of orders of protections for teen violence in Texas and New Jersey.
In order to get such an order, victims also had to demonstrate they were changing their lifestyles, which might involve leaving their current clique of friends.
“A large number of orders (require) certain teens to stay away from each other at school,” Klein said.
One of the biggest areas of concern was managing order of protections in schools.
A school may not be aware of the order, or understand how to implement protections for students in the same school or classrooms.
Education and prevention has been shown to reduce dating violence. A 2013 National Institute of Justice-funded study showed that school-level interventions reduced dating violence by up to 50 percent in 30 New York City public middle schools. And many states have such programs mandated in their schools.
Yet, when violence is already happening, schools are ill equipped to deal with the fallout.
Orders of protection for teens represent “a new frontier for a lot of educators, ” says Carolyn Stone, chair of the American School Counselor Association Ethics Committee, and professor at University of Florida.
Many advocates concerned with teen safety agree. According to Mary Grenz Jalloh, Executive Director of New York State Center for School Safety, there is often a culture of silence from teenagers around these issues.
That is further complicated by the fact that schools are not often aware that there may be an order of protection, and rarely intervene unless something happens in school environment or activity that they are forced to responds.
“The mandate to educate and also maintain safety is very difficult to provide,” says Grenz Jalloh.
Courts and school also have no established way to communicate with each other on these issues. Schools often don't know if a student has a criminal case or if a student is involved in a violent situation outside of the school system.
“Folks in court system aren't clear how the schools work and the schools aren't aware how the court system works,” said Barasch.
Inside the Courtroom
The Crime Report recently visited Kings County Criminal Court in Brooklyn, NY to explore how teen violence cases are adjudicated under the Youth Offender Domestic Violence Court (YODVC).
Many of the defendants, aged 16- 21, come straight from high school to the courtroom. A single judge is assigned to oversee their cases in a program developed in 2003 by the Center for Court Innovation, a non-profit based in New York that develops programs addressing judicial problem solving.
Court starts at 2:15pm sharp—after school hours—for teens involved in misdemeanor domestic violence incidents, like the Monica Maya's case.
Previously, Brooklyn had two domestic courts, which sat five days a week with two different judges, handling 9,000 cases of domestic violence a year.
“Teens were getting lost in the system,” reports Rebecca Thomforde Hauser, associate director of domestic violence and sex offense court programs at the Center,
“It was easy to pull them out and deal with them more strategically.”
And through the intense spotlight on just a few cases—in 2012 there were 156 cases— teens have the opportunity to access more resources.
“Domestic violence is usually the least of the teen's problems,” says Audace Garnett, teen coordinator at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office. “They are dealing with homelessness, violence in their own houses, drugs, incarcerated parents; but being in a teen centered program give them the opportunity to fix other problems,”
The court in Kings County is one of three youth domestic violence courts in New York State. There are two such courts in Santa Clara, CA.
The YODVC successfully issued about 110 final criminal orders of protection in 2012.
“We tell victims that the main difference between criminal and family court is that they don't have to show up unless case goes to trial,” says Melody Huang, an assistant district attorney in Kings County who has been assigned to the Youth Offender Domestic Violence Court since 2007. “They don't have to see the defendant.”
Yet lawyers and advocates caution that in criminal court the burden of proof for obtaining an order of protection is much higher.
Regardless of the challenges of educating and alerting teens about order of protections, young people interviewed by researchers report feeling “vindicated by the protection orders and that is important to victims whether or not the order actual works,” says Klein.
But, said Klein, “It is not enough to allow these laws on books. Someone has to educate kids, courts have to accommodate this, and schools have to be supportive.”
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.