US State Laws Targeting Teen Dating Violence Often Lack Funding, Coordination

By Matthew Phelan

June 24, 2022

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Less than a third of U.S. state laws addressing prevention of teen dating violence include explicit provisions for funding, designated policy leadership, or concrete details on the legal consequences for lawbreakers, researchers have found.

"Many of these laws, especially some of the early ones, are a result of advocacy by the families of adolescents who have experienced dating violence," said Dr. Avanti Adhia of the University of Washington's Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, in Seattle.

"Federally, there are no laws I know of that directly address dating violence," she told Reuters Health by email, adding that a federal policy "might ensure some base level of consistency across states and set a precedent that dating violence must be taken seriously."

To assess the content and comprehensiveness of state laws addressing teen dating violence (TDV), Dr. Adhia and her colleagues focused on legislation that explicitly covered high schools, secondary schools and adolescents. They excluded TDV laws that exclusively covered similar illicit conduct on college campuses or the handling of these cases by juvenile or criminal courts.

Thirty-eight states (74.5%) had at least one law addressing TDV policies for secondary schools. However, in only 15 of the 38 states (39.5%) did the legislation contain a definition of TDV. And while all the states addressed prevention education, only 29 (76.3%) required such efforts, with nine laws (23.7%) simply encouraged it.

Less than half (47.4%) of the state laws required school staff and students to undergo prevention education, with fewer than a quarter (21.1%) requiring similar education for parents.

Less than a third of these state laws (31.6%) either specifically appointed an individual to coordinate TDV policies or detailed legal ramifications for noncompliance with TDV laws.

A small minority of state laws included mandatory policies on how schools should respond to TDV incidents. Only two (5.3%) laid out specific investigation procedures for reported incidents and no states required specific disciplinary consequences for those perpetrating TDV.

Only 10 (26.3%) of the 38 states included explicit provisions for funding their mandated programs and policies. And mental-health services for students affected by TDV were only accounted for in three of the state laws (7.9%).

Dr. Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University who has studied dating violence, praised the study in an email interview with Reuters Health for its "particularly robust approach."

"The study was comprehensive, and used a careful, systematic approach to analysis of data. It's a model paper for state law analysis," said Dr. Rothman, who was not involved in the new study. "It had 2 coders who were coding the laws, which is a tremendous methodological strength."

She expressed hope that this research would lead to additional efforts examining how statutes could be better structured to further reduce instances of violence between teenagers and help mitigate the impact in those cases where violence has already occurred.

"Having the laws in place is an excellent and important first step," Dr. Rothman said, "but it is only a first step."

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online June 13, 2022.