Empowering Teens to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence (part 2)

It’s not easy being 17. At Sanctuary, we’re working to help teens navigate negative messages and achieve healthy relationships.

This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read part one.

At Sanctuary, I have the opportunity to work with teens like Lena to counteract messages about unhealthy relationships and “break the cycle” of domestic violence.

The Children and Youth Services Program staff offer a range of services specifically designed to meet the needs of teens – from individual counseling, to educational support, leadership workshops, and even a comprehensive Afterschool Enrichment Program that operates three days per week.

During counseling sessions with Lena, we spent a lot of time talking about what kind of things she would want in a relationship, what she felt she needed from a supportive partner. We talked about different aspects of the unhealthy and abusive relationship she had witnessed between her parents, and what the alternatives were for a healthy relationship.

I never tell a teen I’m working with what to do – that doesn’t work. I want teens to really think about these things on their own, with my help, so that they can figure out what they want in their lives and what they want out of a loving relationship.

I help them understand that because they saw violence growing up doesn’t necessarily mean it is normal or okay, but instead that there are all different ways to have a relationship and to communicate effectively what you want and how you feel.

The biggest challenge I face is working with teens families who have so many competing needs. Most of the families I work with have really concrete issues that need to be addressed, due to financial struggles, and due to systems that continue to oppress the teen and their family (including the public benefits system, education system, court system, or just racism/classism/sexism in general).

When my clients are returning to chaotic and violent neighborhoods and homes, it’s hard to help them focus during a counseling session on discussing their feelings.

That said, working with teens is amazing. I’ve worked with teens and young people from 12-25 years of age from all over the world and various educational, socio-economic, religious, and ethnic/racial backgrounds and I have learned something from all of them.

One thing I’ve learned, is that teens can tell when you’re being fake or just trying to placate them – if you’re honest with them, they will be honest with you. It’s a great feeling to get to know a teen, have them share things with you about their lives, and then help them figure out what they want for themselves and how to achieve it.

For Lena, talking through practical examples of healthy versus not healthy relationships was huge. She started thinking that healthy relationships were impossible, but eventually saw they were possible and that she deserved to have healthy relationships in the future.

The power of providing services to teens is that I can intervene at a really critical time in a teen’s life, and empower a teen like Lena to create a really different, healthy and fulfilling future for herself.

Andrea Yeriazarian has been working with kids and teens since she became a social worker 11 years ago. Andrea has spent 9 of those years with Sanctuary’s Children’s and Youth Services Program, and has been a leader in shaping the agency’s services for teens.

View all of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog posts and awareness-raising efforts!

Empowering Teens to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence (part 1)

It’s hard enough being a teen. So what happens when teens face domestic violence?

Lena was just 17 when she came to Sanctuary for counseling. For years she’d witnessed her father abuse her mother – physically, verbally, emotionally and economically – and at times Lena herself was the target of his attacks.

Teens are deeply impacted by witnessing any sort of violence between their parents. It’s normal for teens to be focused on developing their identity, figuring out who they are, and asserting some sort of independence. When there is violence in the home, these normal developmental tasks are impacted and even sidetracked.

The way that we as individuals learn about life and how to act in life, and what behavior is appropriate, is through our family. We learn from watching our parents – how they take care of us, how they interact with each other, how they interact with the world. When the only examples you’ve been given are of violence, it’s really hard for teens to understand that an abusive and controlling relationship isn’t normal – that love doesn’t have to include violence.

Lena faced these struggles. She knew she did not want to be in an abusive relationship, but she was also convinced that any relationship she tried to enter with a boyfriend would turn abusive. She had a hard time believing that healthy relationships were real or possible, and struggled to identify any healthy relationships she knew of at all.

Of course, feelings like these are abetted by pressures from peers and messages from society. If you think back to when you were a teen, did you seek advice from adults or other teens? Most likely, you talked to your friends about your relationships, not your parents. Which is totally normal.

The thing is, teens don’t always have the most accurate or healthy information to pass along to their peers. In our world today, there exists so much violence and so many examples of unhealthy relationships that people start to believe these relationships are normal. Combine this with an abusive household, and the results can be disastrous for a teen who’s just trying to figure things out.

Teens in violent homes may be forced to act “parentified” – as an adult, instead of a teen, taking on the responsibility of protecting the abused parent and younger siblings while trying to keep the household running. Some teens will leave altogether and engaging in risk-taking behaviors: skipping school, substance use, and participating in gangs as a way of finding support. Needless to say, school often suffers and it’s nearly impossible to set goals for the future.

This post is Part 1 of a 2-part series about teens and domestic violence- read Part 2.

Andrea Yeriazarian has been working with kids and teens since she became a social worker 11 years ago. Andrea has spent 9 of those years with Sanctuary’s Children’s and Youth Services Program, and has been a leader in shaping the agency’s services for teens.  

 View all of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog series, and find out how you can speak up. 

Merriam Mikhail: Why I run for Sanctuary

Two years after I began volunteering, I was inspired to take on another challenge.

Merriam Mikhail is a litigation associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and a longtime Sanctuary volunteer. On Sunday, November 1, she will join nine other Sanctuary supporters to complete the TCS NYC Marathon while raising funds in support of our work. 

Tell me about yourself. It is the first question participants master as part of the interview skills workshop I volunteer with through Sanctuary for Families’ ground-breaking Economic Empowerment Program. Cohort after cohort, the women’s answers to this commonplace interview question always amaze me.

Some grew up just down my block, and others have immigrated to the United States from all over the world – just like my Iraqi parents. Some of the women have PhDs, while others weren’t permitted by their families to attend high school. Many have already had impressive careers as engineers, pharmacy technicians, bank tellers, financial analysts, human rights workers, and advertising account executives. Others embrace the opportunity to explore a new career, or even their new-found freedom to choose one. All of the women are strong, confident, hard-working, and intellectually curious.

You wouldn’t know it from a job interview, but the women in the Economic Empowerment Program also have one other thing in common: they are survivors of gender violence. They have complex needs, ranging from safety to housing to legal advocacy and clinical counseling. Sanctuary is New York’s leading service provider of these much-needed resources, serving over 18,000 women and children last year alone.

It is also critical for survivors to achieve long-term stability. Thanks to my law firm’s partnership with Sanctuary, I have volunteered for the last two years with the Economic Empowerment Program—a pioneering career readiness and technology training curriculum that helps participants break the cycle of poverty, homelessness, and abuse by securing a living wage job.

Through an intensive four month training program, the women focus on professional development, literacy upgrading, and advanced office technology skills that position them for living wage jobs. The program achieves consistently high placement rate – placing 70% of graduates in positions with salaries averaging over $14 per hour in 2014.

I decided to run the 2015 New York City Marathon with the Sanctuary for Families Marathon Team to help these women secure the resources they need on their courageous journey to a bright future. Four months ago, I wasn’t even a runner, let alone a marathon runner, but in comparison to the challenges Sanctuary’s clients have already overcome, running 26.2 miles almost seems like a walk in the park.

At the conclusion of a recent graduation ceremony celebrating the completion of the program’s rigorous 14-week professional development curriculum, one of Sanctuary’s clients cheered, “Time to go start my new life!

Above the chorus of cheers along the marathon route on November 1, the unshakable determination in her voice will energize me on to the finish line.

You can make a donation to support Merriam and the rest of this remarkable team on their journey to the finish line. Thank you!

A time of transition: supporting children in shelter

Shelter isn’t easy for kids, but it can lead to a world of change.

Tyler was 15, Matt was 13 and Alicia was just 9 when they arrived at the doors of the Rosa Parks Crisis Shelter with their mother Nancy.

“I remember the first day that every family comes in,” says Keyra Carpio, Children’s Activities Specialist at Rosa Parks. “When I came down to meet with Nancy’s family, the three kids were tucked into their hoodies, silently checking their phones – doing everything to block themselves out from the situation.”

Nancy and her kids left an abusive father and a lifetime of instability, and were ready to start over free from violence. But the challenges they faced were extreme – one day after arriving at the shelter, Nancy was diagnosed with cancer.

Finding safety in shelter

Rosa Parks is one of Sanctuary’s five crisis shelters, the first place families go when escaping domestic violence. Home to five families at any given time, the shelter is a tidy, bright building with a backyard, a dedicated children’s room, and separate full apartments for each family.

Residents and staff treat the shelter like a true home and care for each other like family. Rosa Parks definitely challenges stereotypical expectations of shelter in New York City.

But entering shelter, no matter how welcoming or warm, is never easy, and holds extra challenges for children and teens.

“The first few weeks are always the most difficult for children and teens in shelter, but especially for Nancy’s family,” says Keyra. “Tyler, Matt and Alicia felt insecure and uncertain from being in such an unfamiliar place, and on top of that, now their mother had to navigate advanced-stage cancer.”

Transforming children, and moms

Keyra and the Rosa Parks staff help kids and families transform every day by providing extensive children’s and youth services on-site, for all young residents. Along with a dedicated Children’s Room for play, art and homework, Keyra plans an extensive art curriculum for every kid by age group.

Art, says Keyra, helps kids open up. “Just painting a self-portrait helps kids speak and share about themselves. Engaging with pictures and art let kids explore who they are, which is critical.”

Staff advocate for the kids to get them enrolled in school, and sort out any school issues that might conflict with shelter circumstances. Tutors come to Rosa Parks to help kids out with their studies.

Fields trips to museums and theater workshops take place at least once a month, and the staff takes advantage of every opportunity to throw a celebration, from birthdays to graduations to holidays.

Trips and parties aren’t just for kids – moms take part too. After moms and kids have experienced trauma from abuse, these group activities can help them come back together and rebuild their relationships.

A community pulls together

For Nancy and her kids, the Rosa Parks community played a crucial role in their journey from fear and abuse to safety and security.

“When Nancy was diagnosed, it was a drastic change for the family, even after all they’d been through,” says Keyra. “Suddenly, the kids had to take real responsibility, because their mom could not handle it all on her own.”

Nancy had to travel from Brooklyn to the Bronx daily for chemotherapy and radiation, and there were days, in the throes of her illness, where she did not think she could get out of bed.

The Rose Parks staff helped the family develop a plan for getting chores done, getting the kids to school and Nancy to her appointments. The family’s counselors and shelter staff held regular check-ins, planning for how to keep everyone going through the most challenging of times.

Slowly, the family pulled through.

Rebuilding a family through art

As Nancy progressed in her treatment and grew stronger, she began to spend time in the Children’s Room.

Inspired by the art projects hanging on the walls, Nancy wanted to do something for herself.

“Nancy wanted to feel productive and creative again,” says Keyra. “She came up with an idea to create an ‘art journal,’ documenting the challenges and joys of her time battling cancer.”

Soon, the entire family was taking part in this temporary relief from their day to day struggles. Over six weeks, they created six paintings, each one meaningful in a different way. Together, they represent the family’s long journey to safety and happiness.

A happy beginning

Six months after arriving in shelter, Nancy and the kids moved on to a transitional shelter. Recently they found permanent housing through New York City’s new LINC program.

Nancy is cancer-free, and her children have found their confidence again.

They plan to decorate their new home with their art.

This post is one of a series about children that we are sharing during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Visit our blog for more, and find out how you can speak out during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.