New London agencies, schools work to help youths know the warning signs of domestic violence
Last month, a young New London couple died in a homicide-suicide where they shared their first apartment on a quiet city street. Arisleidy Batista-Bido, 18, was shot multiple times by her boyfriend, Nikeuri Rodriguez-Vargas, who then set fire to their home and took his own life.
For people who work with domestic violence victims every day, the story is startling and sad, but not shocking. In the United States, nearly 20 people are abused by an intimate partner every single minute. Right here in southeastern Connecticut, one local organization helped 10,000 victims of domestic violence just last year.
February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, which aims to promote safe, healthy relationships and raise awareness about how domestic violence doesn’t discriminate in age: it touches the lives of our elders, young adults, teenagers and children alike, every day.
A young person's life being cut short at the hands of their partner is all too common, according to the staff at the New London-based nonprofit Safe Futures. And in the hours, days, even weeks before Batista-Bido’s death, the signs were there: Rodriguez-Vargas was threatening suicide, friends said, and his behavior was escalating.
A partner threatening suicide is a bright red flag warning of the potential for homicidal violence, said the folks at Safe Futures, but in many cases young people do not have the tools they need to see signs of violence, know that resources are available to help or even have the language to identify what they’re experiencing — or seeing their friends experience — as abuse.
Even if they do, it’s often not taken seriously.
“The brutality of domestic violence is often sequestered from public view until that moment it erupts, and an entire community is left reeling,” Safe Futures said in a statement a few days after Batista-Bido was killed.
In many cases, the agency said, victims of domestic violence are not believed until the police are called or something dramatic takes place.
“Had a teenager come to you five months ago and told you what was going on in her relationship, would you have believed her?” Nazmie Ojeda, director of education and community engagement for Safe Futures, asked in the statement.
She’s hoping people — from peers to teachers to parents, will rethink the importance of the patterns learned in young relationships.
“Sometimes we’re sort of dismissive about young love or feelings or relationships, we say ‘oh that’s puppy love, it doesn’t matter,’” Ojeda said. “But it does matter, because these are the patterns that formulate and inform their adult relationships, these are the events that are teaching them what matters and this is the language they’re learning. And it starts now.”
Recognizing the lessons taught through early relationships is one of the reasons the team at Safe Futures is working with kids and teens through classes, summer camps and school workshops to fill their toolboxes with the words, resources and behaviors they need to stay safe.
Ojeda works with elementary, middle, and high school students in 21 cities and towns in southeastern Connecticut to try to make sure children and teens are believed, listened to and able to identify when a situation is unhealthy, dangerous or even deadly.
The organization has been doing prevention work for 28 years, in classrooms from kindergarten to high school graduation.
In elementary school, the agency starts by teaching kids about safe and consensual touch, the building blocks of friendship and how to express oneself. In middle school, the focus is more on growing interpersonal relationships with friends; and in high school, the focus is on intimate relationships with themselves, friends and partners.
“We really are trying to help our folks identify what makes something unhealthy vs healthy,” said Christine Foster, director of crisis counseling and Camp HOPE for Safe Futures.
The agency reminds kids and teens that conflict is not always a bad thing; that people who love each other sometimes disagree or argue. But staff teach the youths how to identify when arguments turn into patterns of abuse in a simple way: by helping them identify what matters to them, what doesn’t feel good and how to talk about it.
“We want to give them the tools for being able to say ‘let’s talk about this, it hurts my feelings when you talk about my friends like this’ or ‘if you don't like my friend can you help me understand why?’” Ojeda said.
The staff help youths think about boundaries and look at their other relationships for examples of healthy ones.
When a teenager is in their first relationship, for instance, it feels good at first to receive attention. But when frequent text messages turn into being required to share your location with your partner, there’s an element of control that may not be healthy.
“We ask them to ask, how much of that attention is about control? Why is that important? Do your mom and dad do that? What are the adult relationships like in your life? What would you tell your friend?” Ojeda said.
Staff encourage students to look at their own feelings and provide them with the resources to ask for help so they can take a pause and turn to an adult for guidance when a situation changes.
Most importantly, the common thread throughout the agency's teachings is reminding youths to check in with themselves and acknowledge when something doesn't feel right.
“We’re always teaching them that the most important relationship you’re going to have is the relationship you have with yourself,” Foster said.
Staff members at Safe Futures also work closely with New London Public Schools and law enforcement officials in the region.
In New London Public Schools, lessons on social-emotional learning are built into the curriculum, starting in kindergarten classrooms and continuing on through high school courses. These lessons help kids develop their communication skills, set healthy boundaries, advocate for themselves and others.
An incident like the recent homicide-suicide, which involved two recent graduates of New London High School, reinforces the need for these skills, said Carrie Rivera, assistant director of mental health services for New London Public Schools.
“Any act of violence reminds us of the importance of prevention efforts and the priority of social-emotional learning,” she said, noting that district staff have specialized training to notice, monitor and assess for early warning signs for violent of self-harming behaviors.
She said events like the homicide-suicide also reinforce the need for schools to work closely with community agencies, such as Safe Futures, "to provide additional support that may not be available in schools.”
Relationships with adults, like the folks from Safe Futures or teachers and school counselors, play a big role. For several years, NLPS has been focusing on building relationships between teachers and students that model social-emotional learning skills and meaningful connections, Rivera said.
“It is critical to teach students how to build healthy relationships and how to negotiate conflicts,” Rivera said. “Social-emotional learning is the foundation for all learning and sets the stage for students to be able to learn to their best potential.”
New London schools are staffed with psychologists, school counselors, social workers, school-based health counselors through the Child and Family Agency and, at the high school, a counselor from Safe Futures.
Chief Brian Wright of the New London Police Department, who responded to the scene of the homicide-suicide, said a tragedy like that underscores the importance of building lessons about healthy relationships and resources for domestic violence help into every facet of our community.
“We have to be proactive, not reactive,” he said.
Wright encourages people in the community to have more frequent conversations with their children, friends and students about what a healthy, safe relationship should look like. “Even when things seem to be perfect, you need to have those conversations so there’s an understanding," he said. "Because if you wait until there’s a bad situation, now it’s too uncomfortable, now it’s too complicated.”
Wright said he understands that sometimes friends may be worried about overstepping.
“There’s always that discomfort about inserting yourself in another person’s relationship or, ‘getting in their business' for lack of a better term,” he said. There’s a tendency to assume another person has the situation handled, or would leave if they didn’t. There’s a fear of “becoming the bad guy” by trying to help.
But having those conversations helps reduce the stigma surrounding domestic violence, he said, and could save a life.
The teen dating violence website, teendvmonth.org, offers a variety of resources for teens experiencing domestic violence, as well as for talking about the warning signs of all types of dating abuse and how healthy and unhealthy relationships are portrayed in movies and television shows, and how to emphasize healthy behaviors and what those look like.
The That’s Not Cool Ambassador Program provides an opportunity for teens to complete monthly challenges that promote healthy relationships, with prompts like “listen to a friend talk about their day for three whole minutes.”
Safe Futures also operates a weeklong overnight camp, called Camp HOPE, for children who live in homes touched by domestic violence. The camp is part of a national model that implements a research-based curriculum for campers.
The goal is “to help children learn to challenge themselves, to practice setting goals and finding pathways to reach those goals," Foster said. "They also learn to challenge each other and to believe in themselves and believe in each other."