NEW YORK — Only a handful of states have responded to teen dating violence with laws enabling the youthful victims to obtain protection orders on equal terms with adults, an advocacy group says in a new national survey.
The report on state laws by Break the Cycle, a teen-violence prevention organization that has worked with the Justice Department, gave A grades to only five states. Twelve states got D's and 11, including Missouri, failed.
Grades were based on various comparisons between the legal treatment of adult victims of domestic violence and teen victims of dating violence. Failure was automatic for states where protective orders are unavailable for minors, or where dating relationships are not explicitly recognized as valid for obtaining such orders.
"It is essential that dating violence and the needs of minor victims be specifically addressed within state domestic violence statutes," said Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle. "Lawmakers have a responsibility ... to propose legislation that will ensure the protection of all victims of domestic violence — regardless of their age."
Reliance on child abuse laws
National surveys have estimated that one in three youths experiences dating abuse at some point during their teens — incidents ranging from a slap on the cheek to homicide. Despite the high rate of abuse, Break the Cycle and other advocacy groups say too many states do not treat dating violence with appropriate seriousness.
"Some states feel that if have they good child abuse laws, minors are protected," Gilberg said in a telephone interview. "There's definitely a lack of awareness about the prevalence of abuse among teens in their relationships."
Break the Cycle contends that all young people over 12 should have the right to petition for protection on their own behalf and that domestic violence protection orders should be available even against abusers who are minors.
The new report gives states lower grades if their laws block minors from seeking protective orders on their own, without parental involvement.
Sheryl Cates, CEO of the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, said parental involvement is a challenging issue.
"If you're a parent, you want to know if your child is in danger, but on other hand, teens want the anonymity, to not have to tell their parents," she said. "It's very complicated, trying to find a balance between a victim's rights and parents' right to know."
Teens seeking protective orders on their own
Kristina Korobov, an attorney with National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, said it's sometimes crucial for teens to be able to seek protective orders on their own. They may have strained relations with their parents or come from a home where domestic violence already is occurring.
Korobov, a former prosecutor in Indianapolis and Loudoun County, Va., said it's important in such instances for courts to provide an attorney or other expert to guide the youth through the legal process.
The report commended New Hampshire as the only state where the law specifically allows minors of any age to go to court by themselves to request a protection order. It received an A along with California, Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
Getting F's were Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia.
Korobov said the law in Virginia, where she is based, makes it hard for many teens to get protective orders because it generally limits them to cases where the victim and the perpetrator have been married or lived together — circumstances which often don't apply to dating violence.
"Kids being kids"?
"A lot of people tend to see crimes being committed by juveniles as 'kids being kids,'" Korobov said. "They think, 'Oh, this person is lovesick. It's not as serious as domestic violence.'"
Gilberg said some legislators are wary of the changes advocated by Break the Cycle because they fear creating a "litigious group of minors" who might misuse expanded access to the justice system. But she said awareness-raising efforts were making headway in several states.
For example, in Ohio, which got a failing grade, Attorney General Richard Cordray and some lawmakers have been promoting a bill this year that would allow juvenile courts to issue protection orders for minors in dating relationships.
The bill was inspired in part by the plight of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who was shot in the face by her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend in 2007 and has had numerous operations. Orozco wanted to get a protection order, but Ohio juvenile courts cannot issue them against minors.