CLEVELAND — In 2010, Congress began dedicating the entire month of February to teen dating violence awareness and prevention. Since then, the month is a chance for organizations to put a focus on advocacy and education to stop dating abuse before it starts.
Erika Port knows teen dating violence all too well. It happened to her when she was just 14 years old.
"It was entering high school in a brand new setting. I became a freshman, the bottom of the totem pole so to speak, and a senior started paying attention to me and that felt really good," Port recalled. "He showered me with compliments, made me feel good."
But those compliments quickly turned into something else.
"It was basically telling me he loved me more than anyone else was ever going to love me. He would make up lies of things my friends would say so I would like get mad at them and destroy our friendships," she said.
She said he abused her mentally, physically and sexually.
"There was a breaking point and I just remember, like, praying very hard, like, help me leave this relationship," she said.
After a year and a half, she escaped the abusive relationship. But even after, Port said her abuser stalked her well into her early 20s. She said he was never caught or punished for his abuse. Now, years later though, Port dedicates her time to making sure this doesn't happen to other teens.
"I've had a lot of therapy. I'm actually back in school studying public health and social work and I'm really, really passionate about doing prevention work," she said. "I think parents really need to make sure that they have open lines of communications. Teens, especially, don't want talk in front of their friends with their parents so if a parent and a teen want to talk it probably should be in a setting where you can be alone with your teen and talk."
Dr. Lolita McDavid, the medical director of child advocacy and protection at University Hospital's Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, agreed.
"They may act like they don't really want you involved, but they do," she said. "If you see something and it's concerning to you, then it's perfectly okay for you to try to talk to your child. They may try to brush you off and that's fine. But they know that you're watching and that you care and that may make a difference."
Dr. McDavid said about 1 in every 11 female teens reports experiencing physical dating violence and about 1 in 15 male teens. She said intervention at an early age can help your child when they enter relationships as adults.
"When they have an older, more mature relationship with them, they will appreciate everything that you've done," she said.
Sondra Miller is the president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. Miller said often times when teens are exploring new relationships they don't know what to expect and don't always understand what's healthy or not healthy.
"There can be a lot of unhealthy behavior that's happening below the surface and it's not apparent to those that may even be pretty close to the survivor," Miller said. "We hear from far more adults who experienced teen dating violence or sexual assault as a teenager and didn't recognize it as such until they were much older."
Miller said the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center has a 24/7 hotline for anyone who wants to talk about what's happened to them or a current situation. The number is 216-619-6192. You can also chat with someone online at clevelandrapecrisis.org.
"I think asking for help is one of the most courageous things that someone can do," Miller said. "What is happening to you is not your fault, and you do not deserve to be treated that way."
Port said if she could go back and give a message to her younger self, it would be this: "I really think I would tell my 14-year-old self you deserve better, you don't deserve to be hurt, and that includes any sort of physical violence, sexual violence, emotional violence. You deserve to be built up, not be brought down."