KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The three words “I love you” are frequently credited as being the hardest three words to say in the English language, but there are harder ones.

For instance, try saying “I believe you and it’s not your fault” to a victim of relationship abuse.

“You might be the first person to ever say, ‘I believe you.’ So many people come in to our office say that we’re the first people to say we believe them,” said Kirstin Heydel, youth services coordinator for Mid-Valley Women’s Crisis Service (MVWCS).

Heydel visited McNary High School last week to give a presentation on teen relationship abuse that sought to help attendees understand the cycle of abuse and how to better support victims. MVWCS offers assistance services to all victims of relationship abuse as well as domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking.

Once called teen dating violence, that term has become outdated by the changing nature of teen relationships.

“Relationship abuse is a pattern of hurtful and controlling behavior whether it’s physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual or financial abuse. Relationships now look a lot different than they used to. It might mean the pair are intimate partners, but it can also be hooking up or simply abusive friendships or bullying,” she said.

About 42 percent of sexual assaults happen to victims under the age of 18 and about 40 percent of teens 14-17 know a friend their age who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend, but the actual number is probably higher because many go unreported, Heydel said.

Failing or choosing not to report instances of relationship abuse is actually a symptom of a larger problem, and to understand it, it’s necessary to unpack a whole host of assumptions placed on females in society.

When Heydel asked the two dozen students who attended the presentation what the girls did to protect themselves from becoming victims of assault, a list – walking together, carrying pepper spray or a whistle, having the keys and/or a cell phone out and at the ready when walking to the car at night – was quickly compiled.

When she put the same question to the boys, the attendees responded with laughter and a joking response.

“When we hear about a woman being assaulted, some of our first responses are to ask what she was, or was not, doing to allow it to happen,” Heydel said.

Conversely, with male abusers, many are prone to seeking out, or allowing, excuses, “Abusers use violence to maintain power and control. It shouldn’t be confused with excuses such as having low self-esteem, undergoing stress, or mental illness,” she said.

When someone becomes a victim of relationship abuse, they frequently confide in friends, parents, teachers or even police officers, but those aren’t always the most helpful, Heydel said. A  domestic violence service provider, like MVWCS, is  often more helpful because they are equipped to support the victim from a standpoint of knowledge about everything from the emotional to the legal possibilities.

“The more support a victim has, the more likely they’ll be able to come out the other side in a much better place,” Heydel said.

However, if a victim comes to you with a report there are ways to help them cope.

“The most important thing is believing them. But, if you see a bruise or some other sign of physical abuse, acknowledge it. It will let the victim know they can come and talk to you, it’s also a signal that will help them accept that the abuse is real,” she said.

It’s also good to talk about the qualities of a healthy relationship as early as possible.

“Consent, equality, respect, trust and safety should all be part of a healthy relationship. Healthy relationships are ones in which both people are being able to say ‘yes’ free of any type of guilt or threat or manipulation,” Heydel said.

For more information about teen relationship or domestic abuse of any type, contact MVWCS at 503-378-1572. The organization also operates a 24-hour crisis hotline, 1-866-399-7722.