WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – One in four Rhode Islanders experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency has also found that most victims first experience dating violence between the ages of 11 and 24 years old.
Charlotte was just 13 years old and a freshman in high school, when she said she met her abuser.
“He was a senior in high school. He would check my phone and make sure I wasn’t hanging out with anyone but him. I would take the bus home from school and he would follow the bus in his car and after my parents went to sleep at night I would sneak out and meet him,” said Charlotte.
At the time she said she had no idea what she was getting herself into, and before she knew it – mental abuse turned into physical abuse.
“The second after he hit me he apologized. He was like ‘oh I’m so sorry. You know I would never mean to do that to you – I would never hurt you,'” said Charlotte. “What’s funny is that I was one that ended up consoling him. As a younger kid, I didn’t really have that many relationships to base it off I guess. It didn’t really occur to me that this was like a weird and a bad thing.”
About a year into their relationship, Charlotte said her abuser moved on from physical abuse to sexual abuse.
“One night at a party at his house he was like a little bit drunk and he was grabbing me in front of everyone and I said to him I was like no, you know I’m not feeling this,” said Charlotte. “So he said that he was going to teach me a lesson and he grabbed me and dragged me into the other room and raped me.”
She was just 14 years old at the time and stayed in the relationship after she said she was sexually assaulted.
“He basically shot down my self-esteem so much that I thought that I wasn’t worth anything,” said Charlotte.
The Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Deb DeBare, says it’s very difficult – for teenagers especially – to get out of an abusive relationship.
“What we’re seeing is the rate of people reporting it or talking about it is increasing which we see as a very positive sign,” DeBare said. “Teens and young people have historically been very reluctant because they’re embarrassed if they find themselves in an unhealthy or dangerous relationship.”
Charlotte says the abuse didn’t stop there either, that same year – he introduced her to drugs.
“He ended up getting me hooked on opiates. Every time he would do something bad to me I would use to numb it and forget it. Honestly, if I think about it, I really should not be alive right now,” said Charlotte.
Looking back at it now, she realizes the severity of the situation she was in.
“It’s really hard to admit the person you’re madly in love with is a monster,” said Charlotte.
“One in 10 high schoolers has reported that they’ve been in a physically abusive relationship already. That’s astounding,” DeBare said. “So often the victims of dating violence and victims of domestic violence don’t recognize how seriously dangerous the situation can become.”
Charlotte said that was the case for her, and she’s not alone. According to the CDC, 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner every year.
That abuse can have devastating consequences. Victims are at a higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders and further domestic violence and half of youth victims of both dating violence and rape attempt suicide.
Studies show that only 33% of teens who are in an abusive relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.
“They have so many layers of which they control you. It’s the emotional abuse, it’s the physical abuse, the sexual abuse, it’s everything,” Charlotte said. “I literally thought he would kill me if I tried to leave. It just got to the point that I was just so scared that I was like there is nothing I can do. I mean I was a kid – I didn’t know that there was a way out.”
Charlotte is 21 years old now and in college and travels the country to speak to young girls who are victims of teen domestic violence and dating abuse.
“It feels like a whole other past life for me. Now I can just go on and you know do other things with my life. Have a full life.”
If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic abuse, there are a number of resources available.