What’s Love Got to Do With It? Stemming Relationship Abuse Among Street Youth

When research revealed that almost one-third of homeless and runaway youth in Hollywood, California, were or had been in an abusive intimate relationship, Lisa de Gyarfas knew that something had to be done.

Image of young woman standing with her hands pressed against a young man's chest.As director of high-risk youth programs at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, de Gyarfas looked to the literature on domestic violence for hints on how to develop interventions to help her young clients avoid abuse. But after talking to young people, de Gyarfas and her colleagues quickly learned that relationship violence among street youth is very different from domestic violence – starting with the term itself.

“‘Domestic violence’ sounds like a married couple who have a place to live,” many young people told de Gyarfas.

“Dating violence” was equally problematic, since most homeless youth don’t really date. And “violence” sounded too limiting, since aggression on the street can also mean monetary abuse or pimping.

In the end, the young people decided that the term “intimate partner abuse” rang the most true.

In a small way, the naming exercise taught de Gyarfas and her colleagues that abuse among runaway and homeless youth is very different from dating violence among teens who have a permanent place to call home. Understanding these differences is key to developing relevant interventions for runaway and homeless youth.

What is relationship violence, and how is it different among street youth?

Given their circumstances, homeless youth are highly susceptible to becoming both abusers and victims. Data from the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System, or RHYMIS, used by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) to collect information about youth served by its grantees, suggest that 25 to 30 percent of young people in runaway and homeless youth programs reported abuse and neglect at home. Other studies indicate the incidence is much higher. And research suggests that experiencing abuse at home increases the likelihood of being mistreated or becoming violent on the street.

Image of a young man smiling.Dawn Schatz, who directs youth development programs at Child, Inc., in Wilmington, Delaware, sees this connection every day. “Adults at home are modeling violent behavior, so that’s what these kids come to expect,” she says. “Abuse is normalized.”

Moreover, she says, “Any person who is in a position where they feel out of control is at risk of becoming abusive.” Because young people who are homeless have such little control over so many aspects of their lives, those who commit violence are often seeking to exert control where they think they can.

On the other side, homeless youth are also at risk of being abused. Some young people stay in abusive relationships to avoid becoming homeless. Others, who are already on the street, may stay for protection. Because homelessness puts youth in more violence-prone situations, an abusive partner may offer defense against the dangers of the street.

“Relationships on the street are ambiguous and complex,” de Gyarfas says. A girl might identify a relationship as one based on love, but it’s often for protection. “For example, a young girl might identify her pimp as her boyfriend,” she says. “It’s hard for young people to admit they are prostituting, so they use a different language for it.”

Because street youth often have no support system, using the term “boyfriend” may also foster a sense that there is someone they can trust. Lauren Cosetti, a case manager at Sand Castles Runaway and Homeless Youth Services in Ocean City, Maryland, says, “If they’re in an abusive relationship, it’s so hard to leave because the abuser might be the only person they can depend on.” She says, “Even if it’s not constant support, they think it’s better than nothing.” And if a partner buys a runaway or homeless youth what they need to survive, such as food and clothing, it’s easy for a young person to become dependant.

“A lot of times, a young person has a partner who is older and may already have an apartment. If a young girl runs away to live with her boyfriend, and that person becomes abusive, it’s really hard to go back,” says Schatz. “Because of pride, it’s hard for a teenager to admit to her parents that she was wrong. Also, in her own mind, because she left, she may already feel cut off from her family." 

How can youth workers identify relationship violence?

Cosetti says that it’s difficult for youth to recognize when a relationship is unhealthy. “Young people haven’t had a lot of relationships, so they don’t have enough experiences to draw on, to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Photograph of a young woman looking sidewise at the camera.Susan Spagnuolo, of the Mid-Atlantic Network of Youth & Family Services, agrees. “A lot of runaway and homeless youth simply don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like,” she says.

Service providers can help young people recognize relationship violence by questioning them carefully. Spagnuolo says, “Many service providers will ask, ‘Are you experiencing dating violence?’ thinking this is self-explanatory.” Spagnuolo recommends asking specific questions, like, “Does your boyfriend get jealous a lot? Does your boyfriend monitor where you go or limit who you can talk to? Does your boyfriend call or text you all the time?”Image of a young woman looking away from the camera.

By asking thoughtful, detailed questions, staff can find out what’s really going on in a relationship and be sensitive to a young person’s feelings. A young person might respond that she doesn’t really feel comfortable with her boyfriend’s behavior but she just thought that’s what boyfriends do.

Schatz says, “With a lot of young people, there’s this misconception that jealousy or possessiveness is a sign of love. A lot of the work is challenging that perception. Kids say, ‘It feels good to have someone care about me or care where I am all the time.’” But then, she says, the attention can become too intense and unwanted, or the abuse will quickly escalate.

Cosetti sets up resource tables in school cafeterias and at community events and talks to young people about healthy relationships in heterosexual, as well as gay and lesbian, relationships. She finds young people in abusive relationships who don’t even realize it.

What can youth workers do to help youth in abusive relationships?

De Gyarfas says it’s important to help young people understand that hitting is not the only behavior that constitutes abuse. At group sessions, youth workers explain that abuse can be emotional, sexual, or financial. It can be stalking or intimidation. Any behavior that makes someone else feel uncomfortable, awkward, or frightened may constitute abuse.

Image of a young man resting his chin on his hands.Cosetti gives youth information on building self-esteem, creating personal boundaries, and communicating with their partners. They also discuss expectations and what young people want from a boyfriend or girlfriend.

The discussion may start with what qualities young people look for in a friend. “Kids always list things like someone they can talk to, someone they can trust, someone who respects them,” Cosetti says.

But there’s often a discrepancy between what young people say they look for in a friend and how a partner is actually treating them. Cosetti says, “Young people begin to see that they’re letting a boyfriend or girlfriend get away with things they would never let a friend get away with.”

Similarly, de Gyarfas and her colleagues have developed a curriculum that helps street youth learn about intimate partner abuse through exercises and activities, including a brainstorming session about what they deserve in a relationship and what they won’t stand for. De Gyarfas says, “The goal is to show these kids that they deserve more.”

Tips on Working With Victims Of Intimate Partner Abuse

  • Be familiar with your local domestic violence center's community education and training programs on intimate partner abuse.
  • Help train staff at your local domestic violence shelter about issues runaway and homeless youth deal with on the street.
  • Train new staff on the dynamics of relationship violence among street youth and how to intervene. Role play with staff how to respond to a young person disclosing relationship abuse.
  • Learn how to work with young people to make a safety plan. Safety plans developed specifically for adolescents (though not tailored to runaway and homeless youth) are available at www.ncdsv.org/publications_safetyplans.html and endabuse.org.
  • Violence occurs in same-sex as well as heterosexual relationships. Be on the lookout for violence in all types of relationships.
  • Provide group sessions for young people to discuss their concerns, needs, and perceptions about relationship violence and running away. Lisa de Gyarfas of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles suggests younger adolescents usually have more questions about what abuse really is, while older adolescents often want to process their experiences.
  • It’s hard for young people to admit being in an abusive relationship. If young people seem reluctant to attend group sessions, staff can encourage them by suggesting, “Maybe this is something you can share with a friend.”
  • Create collaborations with community education staff from both runaway youth and domestic violence service provider organizations to train students, parents, teachers, police, and community leaders on how to respond to relationship violence.