These teenagers are a credit to Sunderland

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IT MADE me laugh. It made me cry. This superb 20-minute film, highlighting the dangers of domestic abuse in teenage relationships is amazing.

Made by young people for others in city schools, it is so gripping and superb in getting the message across, that the Farringdon Community Sports College pupils responsible deserve utmost praise.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time as new guidelines were issued this week on domestic abuse, which for the first time covers non-violent coercive behaviour and includes under 18s.

Such mental manipulation could now lead to a prosecution. And it is the mind games that so often lead to physical abuse that these teenagers have so masterfully portrayed in their campaigning film, I Have The Right, which they were fired up to do after the Wearside Women in Need (WWIN) bus visited the college to promote its anti-domestic violence campaign last year – Only Losers Give Bruises.

I’m convinced that this DVD written, produced, directed and narrated by the pupils, which deals with many different aspects of abuse in teenage relationships from the physical to the psychological and emotional, must be shown to a much wider audience. And it is a must for adults too.

It tackles a national problem from a young person’s perspective, highlighting the warning signs and signposting them to the help and support available and has already received Home Office recognition.

I talked with Keiran Fletcher, who at 14 has a wise head on his shoulders and was one of the film makers. Even before he got involved with the campaign he had a friend confide how she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Kieran told me how she was like a puppet on a string and at 15, totally in her teenage boyfriend’s sway. She dare do no other than what he said or she knew what she was in for.

Even after he broke her arm in two places she still stayed with him.

Kieran said: “He was controlling her just like a puppet. Why do that to someone? It’s surprising what actually happens.

“He was controlling her as if she had no soul. In a strange sense he just wanted to be able to control what she wore, what she did, where she went.

“When he pushed her and she broke her arm it was because she was arguing over what he wanted her to wear. I said I couldn’t do much but ‘you are going to have to take big steps and tell someone and break the relationship off because you need this help’.”

Thankfully, she did. But there’s so very many more, who end up trapped. And it is so easy to end up a victim when you are an inexperienced teenager and misread his emotional and psychological abuse as love.

So often parents don’t know if their teenage daughter is being coerced into sex. Such intimate discussions aren’t broached on what she sees as her own private business. And how would you know what looks like high-spirited teenagers, a lad pushing a lass about, is in fact far more sinister?

After watching the film, Clare Phillipson, boss of Wearside Women In Need told me: “In 30 years of working with domestic abuse, this is the best resource I’ve ever come across in explaining abuse in relationships to people who don’t know about the issue.”

Praise indeed, because what it gets across more than anything is that women do not go looking to be abused, that we shouldn’t blame the victim and it makes it very clear how abuse so subtly can start.

The film is aimed at targeting the abuser in the relationship, more than the victim to make them think more about what their actions could lead to.

Top marks for the creativity of these 10 media students aged 14 to 16, who have proved they have such a social conscience that they got to grips with a subject so very difficult, plenty of grown ups wouldn’t have known where to begin.

But they did. And at its premiere in Sunderland’s National Glass Centre last week, you could have heard a pin drop. The audience was mesmerised. I hope it goes world-wide because that’s how good it is and how crucial the message it holds.

Teenagers are so very vulnerable. And it is a staggering fact that young people are more likely to suffer partner abuse than any other age group, with 12.7 per cent of women and 6.2 per cent of men aged 16-19 having experienced some kind of domestic abuse in the last year.

Shockingly, ChildLine receives around 3,000 calls a year from young people about this issue.

A survey by the NSPCC found 33 per cent of girls had experienced sexual abuse and 25 per cent had suffered physical abuse.

Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the charity, said this week: “Teenage years are very difficult at the best of times, but a lack of experience in relationships and issues with self-confidence can mean young people feel they have nowhere to turn.

“Many victims, as well as perpetrators, come from abusive homes themselves and therefore don’t realise how wrong these kind of relationships are.”

That’s why WWIN ran its campaign last year. As Clare explains: “We are seeing so many women after a decade or more whose abusive relationship had started at 14 or 15.”

So often the girl doesn’t realise how little by little her boyfriend is controlling her. At first she might feel grown-up and flattered by his attentions, not wanting her to go out with her friends and telling herself it’s because he loves her so much.

Of course, as Clare knows, this control can become a life-long pattern where she has no life. The group of film makers Kieran Fletcher, Kennedy Cummings, Laura Boldon, Kirsty Barraclough, Jessica Phillips, Jessika Barrett, Jasmin Mustard, Sarah Barton, Kelsey Miller, Ethan Wright worked alongside media teacher, Lorraine Bird and Kelly Henderson of Sunderland City Council.

They explained how teenagers have to fight very strong stereotypes – boys are often made to feel they should be “in power” and in “control” to keep a girl. Girls are often under the impression they have to do what boys say or they won’t get to stay in the relationship. Boys’ peer groups may make fun of them if they are seen to be too caring or sensitive.

Relationships with teens often go to extremes – either the boy is rougher with the girl and treats her like a “mate” or he treats her as if she is so delicate she might break.

Tell-tale signs in a person being abused can be isolation, no longer spending time with friends, self-harm, changes in appearance.

Headteacher Howard Kemp hit the nail on the head when he said: “Their messages are as valid for the older generation as they are for teenagers. They have shown immense maturity and empathy with victims of violence in order to present this persuasive and moving campaign.”

I’d second that. They are a credit to this city.

Can parents offer a stable relationship without marriage?

NO surprise that for the first time ever, the percentage of cohabiting couples with children equals that of married couples with children.

A new report points to a significant increase, 34 per cent, in the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children in the 10 years to 2011.

It’s a sign of the times that while cohabiting families with dependent children increased by 292,000, married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000. Increasingly, cohabitation is no longer seen as a “trial run” before marriage and children, but as a replacement for marriage for both long-term relationships and the raising of children.

How very sad, as I wrote last week, how so many are prepared to take on the greater committment of parenthood, but not marriage.

This latest research commissioned by The Co-operative Legal Services, also highlights another sad fact that over half of people surveyed believe that marriage is not important providing the parents are in a committed relationship. Only 27 per cent maintain the more traditional view that couples should be married before having children.

It may be more socially acceptable cohabiting and having children outside of wedlock, but that doesn’t change the fact, as this report acknowledges and what we have long known, that such families continue to be less stable.

With a higher proportion of all family breakdowns involving children from unmarried parents, the research reveals the potential for future issues with confusion over the legal rights of cohabiting couples compared to married ones.

More than a quarter of those questioned believe that cohabiting couples have the same rights as married couples when it comes to child custody, 22 per cent when it comes to property and 21 per cent regarding finances.

The reality is that the law is different and complicated when it comes to people who are not married breaking up, even if they have been living together for a long time and have children. For example, assets which are in the ex-partner’s sole name, including property, remain their assets, meaning that the parent with responsibility for a child may find themselves in financial difficulties.

Commenting on the findings, Christina Blacklaws, director of Family Law at The Co-operative Legal Services, said: “This report makes it clear that cohabitation is on the rise. However, whilst this is now increasingly seen as a socially-accepted trend, the law has not kept up and clearly there is confusion about the rights of cohabiting families.

“Although many people still believe they have rights as common-law spouses, there is no such status in law. As a result, some cohabiting families may find themselves facing real difficulties should they split up, particularly when children involved.

“It is clear that this area of family law is in urgent need of an overhaul. However, in the meantime, people need to think carefully about how they protect themselves and their families – preferably by reaching and signing agreements about what would happen if you did split up.”

Some aren’t together long enough to sign any bit of paper.

“What is also crystal clear is that almost a third would cohabit to test the strength of their relationship before marriage, 21 per cent to cut living costs and 20 per cent said they had “no desire to get married” but would be prepared to cohabit.

This is why we have ever more lone parent families. Cohabiting is a cop out and the pity is there are so many who choose to do so when what we prize most in life is our family. Marriage means committment and with the right partner brings security and stability and when nurtured, what we all long for – happiness, trust and most of all love.

While plenty of cohabiting couples have found this too, plenty have not. That’s why so many children are growing up in homes where they don’t know who their dad is or what man they might wake up to in their home tomorrow.

‘Bare’ facts

WHAT, I wonder was going through the Duchess of Cambridge’s mind when greeted by a topless woman on the Solomon Islands?

Maybe like me, a giggling Kate could see the funny side of her topless furore, confronted by a half-naked woman in the South Seas where baring your breasts is the natural thing to do, seen as part of a woman’s body without any salacious connotations.

You have to smile and so glad she did.

We have a winner

LETTERS to the editor come in all shapes and sizes. Some are unprintable, but this one took the biscuit and came on a betting slip. Thanks Mr Frank Pratt for your fleeting flutter.

The Axe: The Colling hitlist

LET the axe fall on the call by the family of Pc David Rathband for police to be armed following the murder of two female officers.

Pc Rathband, who was shot and blinded by gunman Raoul Moat in July 2010, was found hanged in his home this year.

The slaying of those two young women, Fiona Bone, 32, and Nicola Hughes, 26, killed in the line of duty, was so terrible and touched us all deeply.

It’s not what you expect to happen here, but that’s no reason for arming officers as Darren Rathband, the North East officer’s twin brother, a policeman in Australia and David’s son Ash want.

I wouldn’t want to see our officers armed anymore than the reinstating of the death penalty – even killers of dedicated serving police officers. As this monstrous act shows, they put their lives on the line every day when they go on duty.

However, I don’t believe we have the right to take anyone’s life, not even those who are pure evil, cold-blooded killers, like the perpetrator of this horrendous crime, who wouldn’t see capital punishment as any deterrent.