As a child, Rita Colon watched her father beat her mother. Then, in high school she fell into a toxic relationship with a classmate, one of the “popular girls.” She was soon depressed, cutting off her friends at her girlfriend’s request, and rapidly losing weight.
“That was my first relationship ever,” Colon said. “I didn’t know how to cope or anything like that.”
Her friends were in abusive and sometimes violent relationships, too. Growing up in North Philadelphia, Colon said, she seldom saw a real-life model of a healthy relationship. A few years ago, one of her high school friends was killed by a boyfriend. It was a story Colon said she wasn’t sure ever made the news.
In her neighborhood, everyone knows that being with the wrong partner can have serious, even fatal, consequences, said Colon, now 24. “It happens over here all the time. The girls down here, we’re always on guard.”
Dating violence is not a trauma reserved for adults. Millions of young people experience it each year.
One of them was 18-year-old Morgan McCaffery, whose ex-boyfriend is charged with killing her at an Abington Township SEPTA station in July.
About 26% of women and 15% of men who have survived dating violence first experienced it before the age of 18, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate-partner violence of any demographic, nearly triple the national average, according to Loveisrespect, a teen dating violence-prevention project created by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. States don’t keep data on teen-dating violence, so trends are hard to track.
This type of violence is not just physical or sexual. It can also be psychological and even digital. People who survive any form of it in high school are more likely to experience it again later in life. Those in the LGBTQ community, as well as in Black and brown communities, are even more vulnerable.
Arlana Brown, 25, who founded Project SAVE (Survivors Against Violence Efforts) to bring resources to survivors in North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, said about half of the people she helps are teenagers.
“People don’t think it’s prevalent, but it happens a lot. It’s not just to one gender. It’s not just to one age group,” said Brown, herself a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. “Teens are new to dating. They don’t know the expectations.”
McCaffery’s murder shook her quiet, suburban community.
She had gone to the train station lot to talk with her ex-boyfriend, Gilbert Newton III, also 18, with whom she had broken up earlier in the summer, and his rage boiled over, authorities said. A friend of McCaffery’s told police it wasn’t the first time. That day, he stabbed and slashed her more than 30 times, prosecutors said.
McCaffery’s family could not be reached for comment for this article.
In the years between the headlines — printed next to photos of pretty white women such as McCaffery; Chadds Ford’s Karlie Hall; and the University of Virginia’s Yeardley Love (whose murder made the cover of People magazine) — have been many more victims, such as Colon’s friend, whose stories have gone untold.
In the county where McCaffery was killed, the Women’s Center of Montgomery County hopes to educate people on the warning signs of intimate partner violence and spread the message that it can and does happen everywhere.
Most cases “won’t go to the extreme,” said Robin Jordan, the center’s director of prevention education and awareness. Yet, she added, the extreme examples are often fatal or result in life-altering injuries. “Is it every day in our county? No. But even if it’s every few years a tragedy happens, that’s too much.”
In the hopes of cutting down on these tragedies, the Women’s Center brings their relationship education programs to children as young as preschool age.
In preschool and elementary school, the conversations are broad. Jordan said they typically center on being a good neighbor, citizen, and friend, and respecting personal space.
With older students, the conversations are more specific. She talks openly about consent, and shows them the teenage power and control wheel, a visual that lays out indicators of an unhealthy relationship. They range from controlling a partner’s friendships and activities, to using social status to make a partner feel subservient, to making threats of physical violence.
When it comes to ending an unhealthy relationship, Jordan said, she advises students to trust their instincts, never break up with someone alone or in an isolated area, and tell a family member or friend about the breakup in advance.
A partner who is abusive may demand answers, Jordan said, or want to dissect what went wrong.
But she said she tells students to remember: “You not wanting to be in a relationship is good enough. I think there’s a lot of times where people feel they need to appease a person they’re breaking up with.”
After almost every talk she gives at public and private schools across Montgomery County, a teenager shares a personal story of abuse or violence, she said.
The Women’s Center staff has been heartened, she said, to see more openness from teens in recent years. Talking about issues related to sex, for example, used to make many of them blush, but now the topic is less taboo.
But Jordan said she also knows even open conversations can do only so much.
“Unfortunately, it’s not going to be 100% accurate,” she said. “Relationships are complicated and people get caught up in them.”
In the city, Brown said many of the young people she helps don’t identify the relationships they’re in as abusive, sometimes because there has yet to be physical violence. On social media, they may see memes or jokes normalizing their partner’s toxic behavior. They rationalize it, too, she said, saying “he’s just jealous” or “I think it’s cute.” As a result, she said, they often haven’t told a single friend or family member about what’s happening or thought about a breakup.
Colon knows how easy it is to stay in a bad situation, to tell yourself that it will never escalate, and that being in any relationship, even an abusive one, is better than being alone.
Although she was able to extricate herself from her high school relationship, she said, she has since fallen back into another abusive situation.
Brown has offered to connect Colon with shelters and other services, but Colon said she can’t bring herself to leave, no matter how many times people tell her she should.