Responding to Adolescent Partner Violence

Emilie MeyerHon. Eugene Hyman, Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara
Wanda Lucibello, Chief of Special Victims Division, Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office
Emilie Meyer, JD, Associate Attorney, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ (pictured)

Summary: A comprehensive response to adolescent partner violence—including early and effective intervention, a victim-centered approach and providing accountability and opportunities for youth offenders—can help rehabilitate offenders and prevent future violence.


Adolescent partner violence is a serious issue that can cross over several court and social service systems. Despite the severity of the issue, there are few programs designed to help youthful victims or perpetrators end the cycle of violence before entering adulthood.[1] In many cases, interveners have a tendency to ignore the prevalence and minimize the impact of adolescent partner violence, creating poor outcomes for adolescents.[2]

Research on Adolescent Partner Violence and Its Prevalence

At least 10% of adolescents are physically assaulted by intimate partners each year.[3] Research shows that violence between intimate adolescents:

  • Can include hitting, shoving, biting, strangulation, kicking, using a weapon, threats, insults, constant monitoring, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, stalking, rape, coercion and restricting access to birth control [4]
  • Increases over time, and may lead to victimization as an adult [5]
  • Affects an adolescent’s choices, including those regarding substance use and sexual activity [6]
  • Is a significant lethality factor, with intimate partner homicide being the leading cause of death for African-American girls between the ages of 15 and 19 and the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls of other races [7]

Exposure to family violence increases the likelihood that an adolescent will be the victim or perpetrator of adolescent partner violence.[8] Judges should understand that in many cases, youth perpetrators of partner violence have also been exposed to family violence in the home. Understanding these potential crossover issues among criminal, family and juvenile law can help judges seek the information necessary to making safety-driven decisions and interventions that do not inadvertently re-victimize adolescents and expose them to greater risk.

Early and Effective Interventions Increase Rehabilitation Possibilities

Despite the prevalence of adolescent partner violence, the legal system has been slow to respond with approaches tailored to meet the needs of victims and perpetrators. Often this vulnerable population is excluded from statutory protections and social services.[9] This exclusion results in a legal response that can fail to provide effective interventions. Yet, studies show that “a court-based intervention program for juveniles … is especially effective for first-time offenders who have not yet “hardened” into a destructive behavior pattern.”[10] Taken together, these findings suggest that by working with adolescent victims and perpetrators, courts may be able to attain a level of rehabilitation that might otherwise be unattainable in an adult population.[11]

Courts can capitalize on this potential for rehabilitation by focusing on victim-centered approaches and interventions with perpetrators that create both accountability and opportunity.

A Victim-Centered Approach

A victim-centered approach encourages help-seeking behavior and system participation. This approach treats the wants and needs of victims as the motivation behind the system’s involvement.[12] This type of response will

  • Assign an advocate to each victim from the beginning of each case. The advocate will be available to explain the process, attend court hearings with the victim, and help ensure that each victim receives tailored services [13]
  • Prioritize responses from court professionals that support the victim and his or her right to make choices
  • Provide meaningful guidance and protection specific to the needs of each victim [14]

Accountability and Opportunity for Youth Offenders

A response that holds a youth offender accountable, while providing rehabilitative opportunities, shows adolescents that the legal system and social structures do not condone violence but also do not discard youth.[15]

Two Promising Approaches

The Santa Clara County Juvenile Domestic and Family Violence Court (JDFVC) is the first court of its kind in the United States. It has a number of features designed to ensure timely and appropriate intervention with adolescents.[16] For example, the court features:

  • Intake procedures that flag cases
  • A dedicated docket with trained attorneys in both the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office
  • Monthly meetings with involved staff [17]

JDFVC also holds adolescent perpetrators accountable, in part by incorporating and adapting a number of laws applicable to adults into its procedures, such as mandating that the judge issue a protection order in an adolescent partner violence–related offense as a condition of probation, which is a requirement in adult cases.

The New York State Unified Court System has the Youth Offender Domestic Violence Court (YODVC) that is dedicated exclusively to misdemeanor cases involving adolescent partner violence.[18] YODVC addresses perpetrators between the ages of 16 and 19, which means perpetrators are adults under the criminal law, but YODVC may apply some special sentencing provisions. Also, because the YODVC is part of a Family Justice Center,[19] there is a completely confidential civil track that an adolescent can pursue. This option may allow victims to be more comfortable with full disclosure. The co-location of services allows for two "tracks"—criminal justice and community support, which encompass civil justice, economic justice and mental health justice—to run concurrently for a victim.

Dating Violence and Dependency Cases

As Shawn Marsh and Jessica Pearce noted in their article, "Resiliency and Crossover: A Framework for Case Conceptualization," published in the March 2010 issue of The Judges’ Page,practically speaking, there are opportunities for 'meaningful practice' in each domain of a youth’s life.” For CASA volunteers and judges in dependency cases, understanding both the seriousness of adolescent partner violence and the potential for tailored interventions may make the difference in creating meaningful efforts with youth. For example, some adolescents experience a high degree of “traumatic bonding” with abusive intimate partners and as a result loses their own identity and sense of worth.[20] The ways to engage such an adolescent safety and case planning, pro-social activities, and in improving community bonds will be affected by that adolescents’ experience of the abuse.


Despite the prevalence and impact of adolescent partner violence, the legal system has been slow to respond with approaches tailored to meet the needs of adolescents. A comprehensive response will show adolescents that the legal system and social structures support each person’s right to live free from violence. Professionals who invest time and energy in creating a tailored response send the message that adolescent partner violence is unacceptable and have the opportunity to work with adolescent victims and perpetrators to curtail future violence.    

[1] Amanda B. Cissner, on behalf of the United States Department of Justice, Process Evaluation of the Brooklyn Youthful Offender Domestic Violence Court (2005) at 2.

[2] Susan L. Pollet, Teen Dating Violence Is Not Puppy Love, 32 Westchester B. J. 29 (2005).

[3] Carrie Mulford & Peggy C. Giordano, Teen Dating Violence: A Closer Look at Adolescent Romantic Relationships, 261 NIJ Journal 34 (2008).

[4] Christine Barter, In the Name of Love: Abuse and Violence in Teenage Relationships, 39 British J. Soc. Work 211 (2009). See also Break the Cycle’s website at

[5] Id.

[6] Jay G. Silverman et al., Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality, 286 JAMA 572 (2001).

[7] Amy Karan & Lisa Keating, Obsessive Teenage Love: The Precursor to Domestic Violence, 46 Judges J. 23, 24 (2007).

[8] Barter, supra note 4 at 220.

[9] Devon M. Largio, Refining the Meaning and Application of “Dating Relationship” Language in Domestic Violence Statutes, 60 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 939 (2007).

[10] Brenda Uekert, et al., on behalf of The National Center for State Court, Juvenile Domestic and Family Violence: The Effects of Court-Based Intervention Programs on Recidivism (2006).

[11] Roger J.R. Levesque, Dating Violence, Adolescence, and the Law, 4 Va. J. Soc. Pol'y & L. 339, 343 (1996) (summarizing this connection, “the examination of adolescent battering is not only central to legal efforts to assist youth in crisis, it is also an essential component of the fight against domestic violence and other crimes perpetrated in intimate relationships”).

[12] Sally F. Goldfarb, Re-conceiving Civil Protection Orders for Domestic Violence: Can Law Help End the Abuse Without Ending the Relationship, 29 Cardozo L. Rev. 1487, 1503-04 (2008).

[13] Cissner, supra note 4 at 39. 

[14] For example, see above and the YODVC self sufficiency coordinators who help adolescent victims with GED classes, getting driver’s licenses, and finding jobs. 

[15] Inger Sagatun-Edwards et al., The Santa Clara County Juvenile Domestic and Family Violence Court, 4 J. Ctr. for Families, Children & Ct. 91, 93 (2003)..

[16] For a full discussion of the court, see generally Uekert et al., supra note 11 or Sagatun-Edwards et al., supra note 16.

[17] For a general discussion of the Brooklyn program see Cissner supra note 2.

[18] Khadijah Rentas, Trying to Keep Abusive Teens from Becoming Abusive Adults, Gotham Gazette (March 2, 2009).

[19] See generally New York City Family Justice Center Initiative at

[20] Largio, supra note 9 at 952.

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