WACO, TX — February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1.5 million high schoolers experience teen dating abuse yearly.
The Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children is speaking up, raising awareness for this month to end dating violence and to help victims #KnowYourWorth.
So is Karath Pruett, a Central Texan who experienced dating abuse for 16 years. Pruett started dating her abuser at 15-years-old.
At first, she said it was the mental abuse of constantly breaking up and getting back together. After high school, the two moved in together, and things escalated.
"Guilt trips into sex or jealousy and cheating," Pruett said.
That's when the physical abuse started. What Pruett says she didn't realize was how hard it was to leave.
"Looking back now, I see so many factors from high school that I didn't think we red flags then," she said.
As a teenager, it's sometimes hard to understand what is and what isn't dating violence. It can range from anything between emotional, physical or sexual violence.
"They [teenagers] see the good in the beginning, and whenever there is a bad behavior, they're like, 'Well okay, I can fix it,'" Pruett said.
Pruett created a Facebook Page called Abigail's Place to help other women going through relationship violence. The survivor wishes she had advocates or another source of education while she was at school regarding violence and abuse in a dating relationship.
The Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children is trying to change that. Aleigh Ascherl, the Prevention and Education Director, visits different schools around Waco to talk to the students about teen dating violence.
"We have their complete attention. They are all ears because they are so interested in this," Ascherl said.
The biggest thing Ascherl says can help a teenager is having someone to lean on, whether that's a counselor, parent or friend. A child's parent or guardian is sometimes going to be the first to notice when something is off about their child, so Ascherl gives advice to those parents or guardian who want to try and talk about it.
"Sometimes when an adult is expressing concern, especially if it is a parent, there is some immediate push back," Ascherl said. "So, I would advise to avoid ultimatums like you have to stop seeing this person or you need to tell me everything that's going on."
One in three teens will experience dating abuse. Experts say it's vital that they reach out when there is a problem. Pruett has three teenagers and let's them know the door is always open if they need help.
"Knowing that you have someone is super important," Pruett said.
After 16 years, Pruett learned a lot about herself and how she should be treated. Four years free of her abuser, she doesn't regret anything about her past, but wishes she would have had the strength to leave sooner.
"I wish I realized my worth and my value sooner and educated myself on what was actually going on rather than saying okay I can do better next time," Pruett said.
The 24/7 National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline is (866) 331-9474. You can also visit the National Domestic Violence website for more information on relationship abuse.