How to help teenagers in a violent relationship?
December 3, 2006 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Can I help two teenagers in a violent relationship when they don't seem particularly interested in being helped? One of the teenagers lives with me.

I'm a relatively new foster parent. One of my kids is a 16 year old lesbian girl. She's been with me about six months. She has a girlfriend, a 17 year old bi girl. They've been together for about a year and a half.

For some time I have been aware that they have physical altercations at times. I talked to "my" kid about violence not being the answer, etc., probably completely ineffective. I have urged her to go to counseling, and she has so far refused.

Lately the situation has escalated. There have been two serious violent incidents in the last two weeks. While both girls participate in the violence, "my" kid is the primary aggressor/abuser.

I have contacted the local LGBT anti-violence hotline. They are sending me a resource book and also gave me two referrals, one to an organization that helps survivors (e.g. "my" kid's girlfriend), and one to a counseling center that will take my kid. I actually knew about both resources, but it did make me feel better to talk to someone.

I asked the hotline person about whether/when I should call the police. The person stated that sometimes calling the police leads to unintended consequences: e.g., a set of authorities get involved, "my" kid could be taken out of my home, etc. On the other hand, the hotline person stated, sometimes a person needs to call the police.

Aside: I am aware that I could call child protective services, but in my experience that system is completely ineffective and incompetent, at least in my county, and will only make things worse. If CPS got involved, I think "my" kid would run away (which is how she has reacted to CPS in the past).

So, clearly this is a problem too big to get "solutions" on the internet, and I am not asking for solutions. But what I am interested in is hearing about similar experiences and what, if anything, worked in similar experiences.

I am particularly trying to figure out when/if calling the police is appropriate.

Also, how/whether I can force "my" kid into counseling, and when/whether such forced counseling could be helpful? I could tell her that she can't live here unless she goes to counseling, or that I'll take away one of her privileges (e.g. her cell phone) if she won't go to counseling.

I could ban the girlfriend from the house, but "my" kid would run away. For what it's worth, both girls have been told repeatedly that they are absolutely not allowed to be physical in my house. I am also trying to get the other girl into counseling as well. But so far it's an uphill slog.

A further question is how long I can deal with being around this dysfunctional relationship. I did not grow up with violence (lucky, I know), so it is upsetting to me (although intellectually I know that domestic violence is prevalent).

Some readers may identify me, which is fine, but for obvious reasons I am posting this anonymously.

Again, I am not looking for solutions, just experiences. I will be calling other resources in my community.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I was forced into counseling by Child Protective Services when I was 16. I'm not sure that it helped at the time, but when things started to go downhill for me several years later I knew that therapy was an option. I knew how it worked, and I was ready to cooperate with it by that time.

What I'm saying is that your foster child may resent you for pushing her into counseling now, but it doesn't mean it would be wrong for you to do it.

The key question may be this: Would she run away if she had to go to therapy? You say she would run away if you banned her girlfriend from the house, involved Child Protective Services, or involved the police. While going to therapy may eventually be best for her, you don't want her to end up on the streets.

You also say that intellectually you know domestic violence is prevalent. That may be true, but it (obviously) doesn't make it okay. As a witness, and a foster parent, you are probably being traumatized in this situation every bit as much as the girl who is technically the victim. You might consider seeing a therapist too, if only to help you process what you are experiencing.

My mother and I went to counseling together when I was a teenager -- our sessions were at the same time in the same place, but with different people. It was a strange sort of bonding experience. We'd both been through some hard stuff. Every evening, after we had our sessions, we'd go out to dinner together. (We didn't generally talk about what had happened in therapy, but it was sort of good to know we were there for one another.)

Hope all turns out for the best.
posted by brina at 8:22 PM on December 3, 2006

Not much experience to offer you, but I do want to echo brina:
As a witness, and a foster parent, you are probably being traumatized in this situation...
Don't overlook this. Waiting for the next round of violence to break out can be extremely stressful. Take care of yourself.
posted by tkolar at 9:56 PM on December 3, 2006

There is as much left out of this question, as given. And much that is left out may be predictive, which may go most directly to answering the fundamental question asked, which in my mind is "I am particularly trying to figure out when/if calling the police is appropriate."

If there is any suspicion, or definite indication that any of this violence is gang related, act. If there are weapons in the possession of either teenager, or specific verbal threats of weapons use, no matter how credible they may seem on the face, act. If there are specific verbal threats of time and place where violence will occur, or of actions or thresholds that will result in "retaliatory" violence or punishment, act. These are all serious thresholds in adolescent behavior, and any time to react that you get from such warnings will typically be measured in hours, not days.

In the larger sense, if you cannot verbally prohibit actions by these teenagers, and be obeyed, to a significant degree, you are not in control of the situation. If you have prohibited them from getting physical in your house, and they see that as permission to go fight outside, or on someone else's premises, you are not in control of the situation. At the point that you, as the adult, are not in control of the situation, it is, in my opinion, incumbent upon you to make the authorities aware of the problems, and perhaps get CPS help and court orders to compel reasonable behavior, whether you think that will be effective or not. You're being ignored by these girls because you don't seem to be willing to take effective and immediate action to stop them from fighting, and continuing to do anything less than that which will be effective in seperating them and stopping their interaction may get your girl into a situation like that my neighbor three doors down got into with his daughter, a 10th grader, last spring.

Altercations of an escalating nature between his daughter, 2 of her friends, and a clique of "mean girls" at a public high school in northeast FL. Slapping, hair pulling, some wrestling/pushing on 2 occasions, broken up by teachers, and all participants given detentions on first occasion, and 3 day suspensions on second occasion, with mandatory parental meetings, and expulsion warnings for any further confrontations. 4 days later one of the "mean girls" threatens slashing the neighbor's kid's face with a razor blade, and she comes home in a near meltdown, and refuses to go back to the school. No witnesses, and a search of the "mean girl's" locker doesn't reveal any weapons or razor blades. Neighbor starts looking for private school alternatives, and takes his girl out of school on "family need" grounds for several days with school assent. Several nights later, the neighbor's girl and several friends go to a local movie, and run into the "mean girl" and her friends. Fight ensues in the theatre parking lot. Neighbor's girl is cut on her forearms, whether with a razor blade or not, no one knows, and she either can't or refuses to identify her assailant. Girl is now enrolled in a private Christian school 40 minutes away, in another county, and family is looking to move ASAP.

In retrospect, the neighbor says he wished he'd pushed the situation into court at an earlier stage, and gotten a restraining order on the other adolescent, if that was possible. Also regrets that he didn't take the threats as seriously as he now thinks he should have, and that he allowed his daughter to continue to associate with friends who continued bolstering her in fighting it out with other girls. Says he's a little ashamed of himself that it took seeing bandages on his daughter's arms to make him feel the need to be her authoritarian father, and not her friend.
posted by paulsc at 10:00 PM on December 3, 2006

This question both breaks my heart and gives me hope for the world. Thanks so much, anon, for your work with these two girls. It is appreciated. Good luck.
posted by librarina at 10:10 PM on December 3, 2006

Is there a PFLAG chapter in your area? I am sure you would find sympathetic supporters there.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:30 AM on December 4, 2006

Tell your foster kid that there's a meeting you need to go to that is part of your ongoing training in foster parent resources, and that you're not looking forward to it, and ask if she'll go with you to keep you company, and that you'll take her out to dinner beforehand to thank her.

Find an open support group for battered women and domestic abusers (GLBT, if possible) where people talk about their experiences. Take her there after dinner. This will work best if you are completely nonconfrontational about the allusion to her problems. Let her put it together. Afterward if she is angry, you can let her know honestly, as you have here, that you are concerned, that you don't know how involved to get, and you are scared of what patterns of violence lead to in relationships, and that you hope she will help you figure out whatthe right plan of action is. And she may feel tricked that you took her there, but it's important to impress upon her that you weren't deceitful-- learning about these matters really IS an important aspect of being a foster parent, considering that you need to know how to help all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.
posted by hermitosis at 7:44 AM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Is there a local women's shelter you might be able to contact for ideas? They have experience dealing with abusers and might be able to give you some ideas as to how to convince your daughter that she needs to change, or how to effectively get her into counseling if she can't be reasoned with. They might also be able to give you some resources you weren't previously aware of.

I applaud you for being sensitive to the same-sex dynamic of this relationship, but in my (limited) experience, the abuser mentality doesn't have nearly as much to do with gender as it does power. It's probable your daughter was abused in the past and now sees it as the only way to interact. Therefore, the broader range of battered-partner services will probably be very helpful to you.

You're fighting an uphill battle, having to deal with this problem when your daughter is nearly an adult. Don't give up on her, continue to be a positive example, and expose her to healthy relationships as much as possible. Try to talk to your daughter's girlfriend (or her parent/s) and urge her to get help; that might be enough to convince your daughter to get help for herself.

And finally: what librarina said.
posted by AV at 7:52 AM on December 4, 2006

If she's a foster kid she's likely got a background of neglect and emotional if not physical abuse. In my experience what all kids like that need from a care giver is consistent emotional support with zero agenda coming from you except your desire to help her follow her own path to being a happy healthy young woman. The violence or acceptance of violence in her life isn't the core problem, it's a symptom of the deeper emotional problem. If you can successfully be a stable loving person (which isn't easy), and she trusts you then eventually she'll feel free to express those emotions that are making the violence possible. And if that doesn't fix the problem she'll actually want to hear the advice she's resistant to listen to now. But it takes time. It reminds me of the injured stray cat I befriended. She went from hissing, to eating food, until finally a year later she'll let me pet her sometimes.

You mentioned you were unsure about being able to remain in this situation - I can empathize, that's got to be difficult to live around that kind of dysfunction, especially if you don't understand it. If it were me I'd ask myself whether I was up to the challenge of being that stable support for my kid and whether the reward of slow progress in her offset the difficulties of being around that dysfunction. I'm sure you want to do good, and that's awesome but if you don't think you're up to this particular (and very large) challenge that's nothing to beat yourself up about and maybe it would be best to talk about it with her and look into finding her someplace more appropriate with the foster care program if that's what you both decide is best. You might consider going to a therapist or talking to a social worker yourself - they've often got great advice on how to live in a dysfunctional house, how to make big decisions on this kind of thing, how to set down house rules that are good for both of you, and how to communicate with troubled kids. Also, have you looked into any support the foster care program might offer you? I wonder if there's a support group or anything.... you're in a stressful situation, I bet that could be a big help in sorting it out.

Take care,we're rooting for you!
posted by alizarin at 8:09 AM on December 4, 2006

Just 2 minor issues I have with anon's post..

1. She's not "your" kid, she's your kid.

2. "I could tell her that she can't live here unless she goes to counseling, or that I'll take away one of her privileges (e.g. her cell phone) if she won't go to counseling."

I would tell her that I want her to live with me for ever, no strings attached, no buts, no maybes, no joke. Although I'll never be your real mother/real father, you are my real daughter. I love you. And I'm proud of you. And I want to be proud of you every minute I live. That's why I need your help. You see, I've been under a lot of pressure lately, and I'm blaming it on you and your relationship. I need to let go of some past issues, I need to go into counseling.The first appointment is Friday afternoon, and I'd really appreciate if you came with me. You know I will be talking about you and your relationship, but you don't have to go in and meet the guy if you don't want to. You can just wait for me in the lobby. Deal? Then we can get icecream after that, and you can spend the rest of your evening as you wish. Do we have a date?
Let her natural curiosity lead her to be present in a room where people are talking about her. *shrug
posted by ruelle at 9:18 AM on December 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

Ruelle, that advice beats mine all kinds of ways. Good job!
posted by hermitosis at 9:47 AM on December 4, 2006

I am uncomfortable about ruelle's advice. My experience of foster care services is in the UK, and I don't know how different it is in the US (where I presume you are?). But here a child in foster care is not the foster carer's own child, and making such definite statements about wanting the child to stay for ever with no strings attached would be seen as misguided in most circumstances, and quite possibly lead the child/young person to act out in order to test the truth of the statement.

You don't mention getting any kind of support as a foster parent, which seems extremely unfortunate, especially as you're a new carer. (Foster carers here would normally have a supervising social worker allocated to them, and another social worker allocated to the child.) Are there any kind of professional resources you could contact? The organisation who placed the child, or the people who trained you, other foster carers? You seem to be dealing with this in isolation. Maybe that's how it works where you are, and I note what you say about the general rubbishness of your area's Child Protective Services, but if there are any professionals involved, particularly any with legal responsibility for your foster child, I think you should consider talking to them. Apologies if you've done so already - I'm very aware I don't know the context you're working in.

About the violence in the relationship - I think it really depends how much your foster child is prepared to discuss it with you, and how much you can do so without affecting your own state of mind. I have some experience of a rather similar set of circumstances, and in that case I think the aggressor was violent partly because of a desperation to be out of a terrible relationship - but there are so many possible variables here. It's worth thinking about what's going well in your foster child's life (is she in school, for instance? Able to reflect on her experiences, plan ahead?) - perhaps there are good things you can build on. And it's really impressive that you've managed to give her six months of stability at such a difficult age.

I'll stop now with the unhelpful UK-based advice, but I hope things improve for you and you can find some ways to unwind for yourself too - this must be very stressful for you.
posted by paduasoy at 12:58 PM on December 4, 2006

I think ruelle nails it.
posted by bilabial at 1:22 PM on December 4, 2006

I work in foster care with teenagers and I train foster parents, although I'm not a foster parent.

Most of the ones I know would NOT put up with this. If it were my home, I would only allow the girlfriend in the house in common areas and only if they can be civil. If they can't, then I would not let the girlfriend in or near my home. I would also let the caseworker and the agency in on what's going on. Not that they'll be a huge help, but maybe they can help you with intervention. Taking away privileges is the accepted way of disciplining kids in foster care, I wouldn't threaten to make her leave unless you yourself are near a breaking point.

I think Ruelle is being kind of tough on you. It sounds like you're trying hard and in good faith. And violent behavior does not merit unconditional acceptance in my book. From teenagers or from adults. You have to be firm. If she were raping your children, you would not tell her that you were going to go to therapy because of it and she should escort you.

In New York we have Therapeutic Foster Parents who receive additional training on working with exceptionally challenging kids with severe behavior problems. You might consider looking into this training in addition to your MAPP, if it's availabile in your area. I think it's called ABC training. She sounds like she would qualify for a therapeutic program. In fact it sounds like she's a few assault charges away from a group home or jail.

Also look into your agency's foster parent association and see if there are other foster or adoptive parents who you can befriend or use as mentors or support groups. Many times people have dealt with the same problems and can give you advice, or just an ear. Maybe they also have teens who have been through similar problems and can get her involved in more productive social circles or extracurriculars.

Getting involved with a job, a church group, a dance or sports team doesn't sound like such a bad idea for her. She and her girlfriend sound isolated and like they have too much time on their hands. Plus, she needs to be planning for her future following discharge. If the agency has a Youth or Independent Living advocate or program, they should be working with her on getting Section 08 housing, finishing high school, going to college and getting scholarships, etc. This violent relationship is a symptom of a much larger problem, namely that this kid is totally out of control and needs to get on track with her life.
posted by Marnie at 11:46 AM on December 8, 2006

p.s. Where are the parents in this scenario? Does she have contact with her family, and is there any way in involving them in a positive way? What about former foster parents? She needs a support network, and so do you.
posted by Marnie at 12:03 PM on December 8, 2006

Great response, Marnie.
posted by paduasoy at 2:43 AM on December 9, 2006

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