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Domestic violence center zeroes in on teen relationships

As a leading local advocate for women in abusive relationships, Mary Travers Murphy has kept a daily schedule of visits to doctors’ offices, community centers and businesses to talk about domestic violence.

Recently she added schools.

“Everybody’s goal is to stop the scourge,” Murphy said. “We need programs in schools to teach kids what a healthy relationship is. These kids think these controlling behaviors are normal.”

To that end, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz on Friday announced a pilot project aimed at educating teens about relationships.

The program is promising, said Murphy, executive director of Family Justice Center of Erie County.

Teens, who are just beginning to have romantic relationships, are especially vulnerable, she said.

Some receive 500 texts in an afternoon telling them what to wear and who to talk to, Murphy said. Those are not signs of love.

“That’s a sign of mistrust and control,” she said. “They’ve been brainwashed into believing they are responsible for this abuse. ... It’s not your fault. You don’t deserve it. It’s OK to talk about it.”

The pilot program should be the beginning of more community education, added Jessica Fitzgerald, a social worker at the Family Justice Center. She would like to see more education for everyone from school janitors to bus drivers, secretaries, students, parents, teachers and school board members.

“With teens, one thing that complicates the issue is that, developmentally, they are in a place where they don’t have relationship experience,” Fitzgerald said. “They don’t know what’s normal and what to expect. … Developmentally, they don’t necessarily want to invite in more adult supervision.”

When Fitzgerald started graduate study in social work at the Arizona State University in Tempe in 2001, she intended to focus on rape victims. Her thinking changed during her internship at the Family Advocacy Center in Phoenix.

On her first day, a woman came in, wanting help to flee the state and leave a violent partner.

As Fitzgerald met more women seeking police and crisis center protection, a pattern emerged. Many said they’d been in abusive relationships since they were teens.

One haunting episode helped lead to her current project. She got a call from a 16-year-old who had escaped through the window of an apartment where a boyfriend and his mother were keeping her locked in. As the young woman spoke from a pay phone, Fitzgerald could hear the boyfriend and mother yelling in the background. She heard a scream and the line went dead.

“I freaked out,” she said.

Fitzgerald arranged for a police check and eventually the girl’s mother, who had moved out of state for work, came to get her daughter.

“I’ve always been interested in working with teenagers and advocating for them. … When I got that phone call it brought the two together,” said Fitzgerald. “I think that just kind of confirmed my passion that this was something that I needed to continue.”

Fitzgerald, 36, returned to Buffalo to be closer to family after she finished her degree. By 2008, she went to University at Buffalo law school and enrolled in a companion sociology doctoral program, which led to her current research.

She studied the problem throughout graduate school, surveying family courts, asking how they would respond to a teen’s request for a protection order from an abuser.

She learned New York City courts have no problem making those arrangements, but answers from Western New York courts were ambiguous. Around here, she heard, teens needed parents’ help or that it wasn’t known how judges would respond.

“There’s really a lot of inconsistencies,” she said.

In meetings with high school social workers for another project, Fitzgerald discovered a range of reactions to violent teen relationships. Some said the problem didn’t exist. Others wanted help.

“I think we want to believe that it only happens in bad homes,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s important that people understand that there’s no protective factor there. … If you go to a good school in the suburbs that doesn’t protect you. It’s something that cuts across all boundaries.”

To begin to get better information out to teens, last year Fitzgerald founded a now-dormant nonprofit, the Youth Rights Agency. For now she’s the only, unpaid, staff member. Eventually, she’d like to raise money to hire lawyers who can be champions for kids in crisis.

“It’s important when you’re a teenager or a preteen that you’re aware there’s supports available,” she said. “Hopefully, if we were doing more education, they wouldn’t feel like they had to figure it out on their own and they’d have to go from bad relationship to bad relationship.”