Editor’s Note — February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.  To raise awareness of this important issue, the Independent Herald reached out to a Scott County teen who was a victim of dating violence to invite her to tell her story. Her identity is not being revealed, nor is the identity of her alleged attacker. For the purposes of this story, she will be referred to as “Alyssa,” which is not her real name. (Photo: Stock photo)

“Just because someone portrays an innocent demeanor doesn’t mean they are to be trusted.” 

That’s what Alyssa knows now. It’s what she wishes she had known 2.5 years ago, when she was just a high school sophomore, on a date with someone she might well have been falling in love with. On that fateful weekend night, Alyssa’s night was forever changed. It was the night she became a victim of teen dating violence.

Alyssa was a typical Scott County teenager. Like others her age, in a small town where there’s nothing much to do and nothing truly exciting ever really happens, she would spend weekends cruising around town with her friends. It’s what her parents had done before her, growing up in the same Scott County town. It’s what her own kids might do, somewhere down the road.

But on one weekend night in 2016, when Alyssa and her friends were out having fun like they usually did on weekends, something went horribly wrong. Alyssa was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend. She was immediately thrust into a world of shattered trust — trust in boys who should’ve been taught to protect girls, not abuse them; trust in the system; shaken by the reluctance to believe her story by others who she had long trusted.

TEEN DATING VIOLENCE: A CRISIS

It’s one of America’s last great taboos. As domestic violence and sex crimes against minors have been shifted from the realm of the unmentionable and into the spotlight, teen dating violence remains something that’s mostly just whispered about — talked about in terms of numbers, without real faces or stories. Incredibly, eight states — Tennessee isn’t one of them — still do not consider a violent dating relationship to be domestic abuse, meaning teens cannot apply for a restraining order of protection from the abuser.

But the statistics paint a sobering picture: Not only is teen dating violence real, but there are plenty of victims right within our own community.

"I'm here to say (teen dating violence) exists and it exists in our community."

— Christy Harness, Scott County Family Justice Center

Nationwide, 1.5 million high school-aged boys and girls admit to being intentionally hit or physically harmed in the past year by someone they were romantically involved with. Twenty-five percent of high school girls in America have been abused physically or sexually. And 33 percent of adolescents are victim to sexual, physical, verbal or emotional dating abuse.

That last statistic hits home for anyone with kids who are dating aged or soon will be: one in three young people will be in an abusive or unhealthy relationship.

Alyssa knows those statistics all too well. She knows them because she’s lived them. 

But there was a time when, like most Americans, she wasn’t aware of the prevalence of dating violence. In middle school and high school, Alyssa heard plenty of anti-bullying speeches. But she never heard anything about dating violence.

“I would have never thought it would have happened,” she said. 

Most teens don’t. Most parents don’t, either, as it turns out. According to Christy Harness, director of the Scott County Family Justice Center, studies show that 81 percent of parents do not believe teen violence is an issue. 

“I’m here to say it exists and it exists in our community,” Harness said.

A CHILDHOOD FRIEND

The boy Alyssa says assaulted her 2.5 years ago, she had known since childhood. The two had been classmates since kindergarten. They had been good friends most of their lives. At the age of 16, they decided to start dating. They had been dating three months when that fateful night in 2016 arrived.

“I knew this boy my whole life and never once thought anything like this would happen,” Alyssa, now 18, says. 

That’s her message for other girls who might be walking in the shoes she once was: don’t dismiss the red flags. 

“Look out for people who are controlling, people who make you feel like you are nothing without them,” she says. “My message to girls is make sure you find happiness within yourself and don’t search for happiness in a significant other. Stand your ground. Make yourself aware of the red flags in dating.”

A SHATTERED WORLD

Most teens who are in an abusive relationship keep it to themselves. They’re afraid to tell anyone, so they don’t report it. 

Alyssa was not one of those people. She went to police. They told her they would get back to her and her parents within a week, she said. When weeks stretched in to months, with no word, Alyssa’s parents decided to take it a step further. They spoke to a prosecutor. She’ll never forget the stinging words that the prosecutor had, as he seemed to insinuate that she was to blame for what happened.

"I lost every single friend I had. Their excuse was they didn't want to be a part of it because it was messy."

— Alyssa, dating violence survivor

After discussing the situation with a counselor at the Helen Ross McNabb Sexual Assault Survivor Center in Knoxville, Alyssa decided to not press charges — at least not right away. Testifying at trial would be emotionally taxing — and she was already mentally spent. Besides, there’s a statute of limitations on sexual assaults in Tennessee; charges do not have to be filed right away.

But deciding against going to court didn’t make things easier for Alyssa. She replayed the events of that night in her mind, over and over. And still does, even now. She’ suffers from severe anxiety and depression. She has anxiety-induced seizures. She even thought about suicide. 

“I gained 70 pounds after the assault because I would have nightmares about the assault and I would eat at night to keep myself awake,” she says. She stayed up for days at a time to avoid sleep.

In a small community where everyone knows everyone else, Alyssa says she even stopped going to Walmart — the biggest community hangout — for fear that she would bump into her abuser. When her mom finally coaxed her into a trip to the store to get her out of the house, she says they just happened to see some of the boy’s family, who she says followed them around the store, as if attempting to intimidate them.

Then there are her former friends. In the two-plus years since the assault occurred, Alyssa says, she’s lost all of them.

“I lost every single friend I had,” she says. “Their excuse was they didn’t want to be a part of it because it was messy.”

While her high school filed a report with Department of Children’s Services investigators after learning what happened, they could not restrict the alleged perpetrator from attending class or school activities, since no charges had been filed. Alyssa wound up withdrawing from class and being home-schooled; “We had almost all the same classes,” she says. “I couldn’t be in the same vicinity as him, let alone the same classroom.”

Harness, who sees domestic violence victims of all ages through her job as the FJC coordinator, says that Alyssa’s symptoms aren’t unusual.

“Statistics show that youth who experience violent relationships are at a higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, and additional further domestic violence,” she says. “We must do all we can as a society to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

SHARING HER STORY

Alyssa spent a year in sexual assault therapy at the Helen Ross McNabb center. Her mom would take a half-day off work every Wednesday to drive her to Knoxville for counseling sessions. Through the support of her therapist, her family and her faith, Alyssa says, she’s learning to cope. 

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t still hold grudges. She still feels the legal system didn’t take her seriously. In fact, she says, “the system failed me miserably. I am the one suffering while he goes on and lives his life with no consequences.”

But, she’s moving forward. She’s written songs to help her get her message out to others. And she says she wants to reach out to others who have experienced the pain she’s feeling. She has a message to share. And it’s a message of hope.

“It may seem like life is falling apart but it does get better and there are great sources out there; you just have to find them,” she says. “Reach out to other survivors, read survivors’ stories online. And know that by coming forward and reporting it you may be helping hundreds of other girls to have the courage to come forward as well.”

That doesn’t mean it will always be easy.

“There are gonna be people who don’t believe you,” Alyssa says. “But there will also be people who do believe you and who will not stop fighting for you and with you. You deserve justice and deserve healing and the first step is telling your story and filing a report to hopefully make him pay for his actions.”

FINDING HEALING

Alyssa remembers the painful days when she told her story and was basically accused of being promiscuous. She remembers looking for help and being unable to find it. It’s why she’s convinced that Scott County needs to be more proactive when it comes to victims — especially teenaged victims. 

It’s a void that Harness knows all too well, because it’s a void the still-new Family Justice Center, which opened last summer — nearly two years after Alyssa was assaulted, is attempting to fill. 

“Talking about abuse and victims sharing with others information about their personal and intimate life is not easy,” Harness said. “However, there are people within organizations here in Scott County willing to help and listen. I just hope victims know it is not their fault and they have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Alyssa, who continues her battle — she’s currently in the process of obtaining an order of protection, recently discovered Harness and the FJC. She sees potential for a difference to be made.

“In the short time I have known her, Christy has made me feel like I am more than just a victim — that I am a survivor, and that I am strong, which is something I struggled with,” Alyssa said. “I think if I would’ve gotten in contact with her right after this happened, things would have played out differently.”

Alyssa isn’t ready to forgive the legal system, but she says it has inspired her to try harder to share her story with others — and to heal.

“I’m telling my story so other girls don’t have to experience the tragic realization that most people don’t care,” she says. “There is a small group of people who care and believe you and are there for you. And they will fight for you until the end.”

Alyssa's mother also has a message for teen girls who are victims of dating violence. She feels that one of the reasons the system failed in their case is because Alyssa was reluctant to speak out at first — which is common.

"Her boyfriend told her he was sorry, he loved her, and threatened to kill himself if she told, and she believed him," her mother said. "I would just like to say to other girls: Don't believe the lies. Speak out. Tell someone. You have to protect you, not your perpetrator."

Alyssa still doesn’t know how it all ends; it’s been 2.5 years, but it’s still too soon. 

“I still, to this day, two and a half years later, think about it every day, and all the what-ifs,” she says. “I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I just want to feel safe.”

If you or someone you know is the victim of teen dating violence, contact the Scott County Family Justice Center, (423) 663-6638.