Legally Speaking: But He Loves Me ...

John G. Browning May 21, 2009, 6:00am

For "Susan" (not her real name) it is a relationship that could superficially be reduced to stark numbers.

Seven – the number of months she and her boyfriend "Rick" have been together.

Four – the number of visits she's made to emergency rooms following beatings at the hands of this same young man.

Three – the number of broken ribs she suffered the last time he went after her, a sudden, savage episode initiated when Rick accused Susan of flirting excessively with an ex-boyfriend at a party.

To her mother, Susan offers increasingly improbable tales of accidents.

To concerned girlfriends, she offers excuses for Rick's brutality – "it's my fault," she says, feebly protesting that "he loves me" despite the ugly, violent flare-ups that have characterized their relationship.

What Susan didn't know was that there was a whole hosts of other numbers that could be applied to her situation. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission estimates that in 2006, nearly one million women were battered.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, that same year there were nearly 200,000 incidents of documented family violence statewide. In a 2007 survey of 15,000 adolescents conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent reported physical abuse, such as a being struck or slapped by a dating partner.

Roughly 8 percent of the teenagers responding to the survey reported being forced into sex against their will.

According to a 2007 study by the National Center for Victims of Crime, 16- to 24-year-old women are the most likely to become victims of domestic violence.

While a truly definitive national study on abuse in teenage relationships has yet to be done, the research that has been done to date points toward alarming findings. Victims of dating abuse are more likely than their peers to engage in binge drinking, get into fights, and attempt suicide.

In addition, the rates of drug abuse are more than twice as high in abused young women as they are in girls their same age who have not been abused. Sadly, like domestic violence in general, incidents of teen dating abuse are gravely underreported, and consequently these figures – alarming as they are – only scratch the surface of a much more deeply-rooted problem.

These numbers have human faces, faces like Heather Norris of Indianapolis. Heather was 17 when she and her boyfriend started dating. By the time she turned 20, she had tried to get out of the relationship on numerous occasions, as her boyfriend's obsessive, controlling behavior erupted into increasingly frequent bouts of physical abuse.

Ultimately, in 2007, Heather was stabbed to death by her boyfriend before her body was dismembered and discarded in trash bags. Her mother Deborah Norris helped deal with the loss by creating

The Web site is designed to help girls spot the warning signs of dangerous dating behavior and to recognize boyfriend conduct that is unhealthy or unacceptable, such as extreme jealousy, frequently calling or texting in an effort to check up on her, demanding to know where she has been or who she's been with, losing his temper, or putting her down in front of others.

Last year, Texas enacted a law requiring school districts to adopt and implement a dating violence policy, including efforts to raise awareness as well as to educate students and their parents.

It's a statute that had its tragic genesis in the 2003 stabbing death of 15-year-old Ortralla Morley in the hallway of her Austin high school, as well as in the 2005 Austin shooting of 18-year-old Jennifer Ann Crecente. Both killings came at the hands of ex-boyfriends.

Tanya Pankz can sadly relate. On Dec. 27, 2002, her daughter Jennifer (a 2001 graduate of Rockwall High School) was killed by a young man she had been dating at the University of North Texas.

The boyfriend, Stephen Chartier, grabbed her in a headlock, broke her neck and stabbed her in the throat when she tried to break up with him and leave his apartment. Chartier pleaded guilty, received a 45-year prison sentence for murder, and will be eligible for parole after 22 years.

Tanya Pankz copes with the grief by speaking out on dating violence dangers, whether she's cautioning high school students on the warning signs of a violent relationship, or whether she's raising the awareness of community leaders and parents who might naively believe – as she once did – that stable, middle class families are "where this type of violence was not supposed to happen."

For the former bank manager turned family violence volunteer, time has not healed all wounds but Pankz takes comfort in the hope that by sharing her daughter's story, others may avoid Jennifer's untimely fate.

Texas has made great strides during the past year in combating domestic violence, including offering victims of stalking or abuse a confidential post-office box through the Address Confidentiality Program.

The program, which has counterparts in 22 other states, enables domestic abuse survivors to remain invisible to their batterers by obtaining a substitute address which they can use for such things as government records (driver's licenses, voter registration forms, etc.) that might otherwise be accessible to their abusers.

However, much more remains to be done, and the most potent weapon against domestic violence in general and teen dating violence in particular, may very well be raising public awareness.

To learn more, go to If you or someone you know is being abused, call either the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline at 1-866-331-9474, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Awareness may prevent more Susans from insisting "but he loves me" through swollen, bloodied lips.

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