The McLean High School auditorium was filled to near-capacity Thursday night for a presentation on healthy teen relationships and dating. The forum, "What's Love Got to do With It?" was sponsored by the Safe Community Coalition, in partnership with the McLean High School PTSA, Langley High School PTSA, The Madeira School, and Thomas Jefferson High School PTSA.
Those attending the community forum represented a cross-section of individuals whose lives have been or could be affected by teen dating issues. The audience was filled with teens and older students, parents, grandparents, and mental health professionals, among others.
Dranesville Supervisor John Foust attended along with representatives of Fairfax County Police Department, including Antonio Torres-Ramos, The McLean Police Department's Victim Advocate. The format was interactive, and many attendees either had pointed questions about warning signs of abuse, or shared frank stories of abusive, even deadly, situations.
Actors from Deanna's Educational Theater kicked off the forum by presenting its popular play, "Remote Control." The interactive play featured three actors who present a difficult and abusive dating situtation, and invite the crowd to discuss and suggest solutions. The theater group, which is based in Massachusetts, really appealed to the young audience members, as it managed to include a bit of humor in its message.
Following the play, Lynne Russell and her husband Andy described, in a video, the day that changed their lives. They told of seeing a man walk up their driveway with a clipboard one Sunday afternoon. "I opened the door and there was a detective," said Lynne Russell. "He asked, 'Are you the mother of Sioban Russell?' I said yes. He said 'I need to come speak to you. Is your husband here?' "Nothing could prepare us for what he said.
He said, 'I've got some terrible news. Your daughter had a fight with her boyfriend today and he killed her.'
"It literally feels like your heart breaks," said Lynne Russell. "There's a physical stabbing sensation of sheer pain, just emotional pain and physical pain. And you are so overloaded, your thoughts just become a scream."
She is now the President of DASH (Dating Abuse Stops Here). It is an organization she founded after her 19-year old daughter Sioban was killed by her ex-boyfriend nearly three years ago. Standing on the stage Thursday night, Russell told of Sioban's struggle to break free from her ex-boyfriend. But Sioban faced threats from him, including threats to hurt or kill Sioban's parents and younger siblings.
Lynne told the audience that she overestimated her ability to help her daughter, and she wished she had the resources that are available today to help teens in abusive relationships. She created DASH in an effort to help put an end to teen dating abuse and violence. Russell said that if one person's life is spared by her sharing this message, then her daughter's death would not be in vain.
A two-person panel of experts facilitated a discussion of teen dating abuse. The panel included trauma physician, Dr. Khaled Basiouny, and licensed social worker and SCC Vice President of Programming, Mimi Weisberg.
Five things to know about teen dating abuse:
1. Warning signs of an abusive relationship include, but are not limited to: extreme jealousy or possessiveness, constant checking in through phone calls or text messages, isolation from family or friends, repeated name calling and insults, controlling victim's choices or actions, loss of temper or violent behavior.
2. If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship but are not sure how to proceed, seek help. Remember that being a victim of abuse does not equal weakness. Find strength in empowering yourself to leave the situtation and get help. And be persistent. It takes an average of seven to ten weeks to break loose from an abuser.
3. As a third party, the question is not WHETHER to step in, it is HOW to step in. it is incumbent upon a parent or friend to tactfully address the issue, offer support, and refer the individual to a hotline or other useful resources.
4. As a parent, if you suspect your child is in an abusive relationship, let your child know that abuse is never their fault, and that abuse is never okay. As in most cases, it is important to remain calm and supportive, offer help and lead them to resources. Often as parents it is not possible to put an end to unwanted teen behavior. The parent can simply hope to plant a seed of thought so that the teen feels empowered to act for his or herself. A pamphlet from a useful hotline left at the breakfast table, for example, may cause an angry outburst from your child. But your child may refer to it later after he or she calms down.
5. Some useful resources include:
The National Teen Abuse Helpline, 1-866-331-9474
The local police department
Fairfax County Victim Assistance Network, 703-360-7273
Virginia Family Violence & Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-838-8238