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Teens Find Abuse Begins Early

In a few weeks, Robyn Heidary will be a sophomore in high school. But the hardest lesson she ever learned was when she was 12, and secretly dating a 17-year-old boy.

"I know now I would not let that happen to me again, but at the time I didn't know it was wrong, what he was doing," Robyn says. "He always wanted to know where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. He told me I couldn't hang around anymore with my guy friends. I had to spend all my time with him."

It began with emotional control, isolating Robyn from her friends, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

"Then he started getting more abusive," she says. "He would start punching me in the face and pushing me down and really hurting me."

It was a similar story for an 18-year-old girl who asked not to be identified.

"That's when I knew it wasn't love," she says. "It wasn't love at all."

At the time she was 15, her boyfriend, 16.

"He wanted so much more from me than I wanted to give him, than I was ready to give him, than I was willing to give him. And he took it anyway," she remembers.

Over the course of their yearlong relationship, he raped her several times. Even after she broke up with him, the emotional abuse didn't stop.

"Then the threats became more obvious," she says. "He would call my house 20 times a day. Then he would follow me home. Then he would jump on my car when I was trying to leave school."

Domestic violence isn't something that happens just to adults. It starts with teenagers, and at about the same rate -- although record keeping for both groups is flawed. It's believed that 10 to 30 per cent of dating teens experience physical abuse, and many more endure emotional or mental mind games.

Robin Heidary

"Teenagers have very limited dating experience, so they will often confuse possessive, jealous and controlling behavior as a sign of love," explains Rhea Mallett, who heads New York City's Commission To Combat Family Violence. One of her goals is simply to increase awareness of the problem.

"One of the teenagers looked up and said, 'wow, I knew something was wrong, I knew something was happening but I didn't know it was abuse,'" Mallett says, giving an example of the commission's success.

The abuse happens at a critical point in teenage lives.

"The most important thing to them is independence and exercising control over the decisions they're making in their lives," says Caitlin Finnegan, who works with Empower, a group dedicated t ending gender-based violence. She says it is hard for teens to go for help, and if they do, their concerns are frequently brushed off.

"They often find when they are ready to get out of an abusive relationship, people aren't prepared to hear them and people aren't prepared to believe them," Finnegan says.

Less than four per cent of affected teens ever reach out for help or report the abuse. Neither of the young women CBS News talked to reported it. But when the most popular teen magazine in America, Seventeen, ran a cover story on violent boyfriends, it prompted hundreds of letters.

"'My boyfriend gets very violent sometimes. He pushes, slams me into walls, restrains me, grabs me by the hair'" read one letter, according to Patrice Adcroft, Editor in Chief, Seventeen.

An overnight survey on Seventeen's Web site got 3500 responses.

"Eleven per cent said they had been physically abused by their boyfriends, 27 per cent had been verbally abused, and the remainder, 62 per cent, said they knew of a friend who had been abused," Adcroft says.

Experts say society needs to wake up to the existence of teenage abuse and start listening to children. Teens needs to learn that abuse is not ok, not normal, and most of all, that it's not their fault.

"I knew it wasn't going to happen to anyone I knew," the anonymous teen says. "But it's going to happen in the movies, it's going to happen on TV, it's going to happen in soap operas, it's going to happen in after school specials, but it's not going to happen to you. But it did."

New York City's hotline receives 400 calls a month from teens involved in abusive relationships. Officials are launching pilot programs against abuse in five high schools this fall.

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