The Family Place’s BE Project: Preventing teen dating violence and fostering healthy relationships

Story by Claire Collins. Photos by Nancy McGuire and provided by The Family Place.

Since 1978, The Family Place has been a haven for thousands of women, men, and children escaping domestic violence. While shelter and support services have always been at the core of what they do, The Family Place is committed to preventing violence, halting cycles of violence that often plague families for generations.

Mimi Crume Sterling, CEO of The Family Place, and Vanessa Baum, Director of Prevention Education. Photo by Nancy McGuire.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports one in three women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in seven men will be a victim of domestic violence. Even more alarming, one in three teens will experience intimate partner violence, not only placing them in grave danger but predisposing them to a lifetime filled with violence. Research shows young girls who witness or experience domestic violence in childhood are likelier to share the same abuse in their adult relationships. Boys who grow up in violent homes are more likely to go on to perpetrate the same violence as adults.

“We provide three phases of programming: Prevent, Protect, Prevail,” Mimi Sterling, Family Place President and CEO, says. “If we don’t address the issues at the root of domestic violence, the cycle will continue.”

It is out of the desire to break cycles of abuse that the BE Project was born in 1999. Established as one of the first programs targeting teen abuse victims in Dallas, the BE Project has evolved over the years and educates nearly 7,000 teens a year. BE Project programming focuses on North Texas children in 6th-12th grade. It educates and empowers teens to build healthy relationships through interactive workshops, resources, and support.

Teen dating violence is behavior used to harm, threaten, intimidate, or control another person in a dating relationship. Teen dating violence is common. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2019 indicates that among U.S. high school students who reported dating during the 12 months before the survey:

  • About one in 12 experienced physical dating violence.
  • About one in 12 experienced sexual dating violence.

Statistics show female teens experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence than their male counterparts. Additionally, teens who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) or unsure of their gender identity experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence than students who identified as heterosexual.

“The Be Project has looked a little different throughout the years, sometimes branded under a different name (YEPS, START, etc.), but always with the primary focus of educating youth to prevent violence,” says Vanessa Baum, Director of Prevention Education at The Family Place. “After 24 years’ experience, we are better equipped now than we were in 1999 in terms of having research around best practices and evidence-based strategies for preventing violence.”

However, there is a new sense of urgency surrounding teen relationship violence as it relates to the evolution of technology. Today, phones serve as human trackers. Apps on smartphones can be set to automatically share your location. It can be used by controlling partners to keep tabs on their significant others. Through experience working with teens in schools, The Family Place reports students are much more likely to view location sharing as a sign of trust instead of an invasion of privacy, and even more disturbing, teens who are unwilling to share their location 24/7 with a partner are viewed suspiciously as if they are trying to hide behavior, experts say. In short, it makes boundary setting, an integral part of a healthy relationship, seemingly impossible.

“Where I see a sense of urgency in the community is among parents and teachers about digital dating abuse and the use of technology in relationship violence (or even unhealthy friendships),” Vanessa says. “Because parents of teenagers today didn’t grow up with the same technology, it’s automatically a little scarier to think about youth having to navigate those issues without having that same experience as a reference point.”

Additionally challenging for parents and other supportive adults, the number one issue BE Project staff report in working with teens is gaining their trust.

“If you think back to your own time as a teenager, any conversations with adults about dating and relationships were probably lectures where you were given a bunch of rules that felt unfair and a long list of things you’re not allowed to do, and you probably came out of that conversation feeling awkward at best and deeply ashamed at worst,” Vanessa explains.

BE Project staff work to change that dynamic, and while challenging, Vanessa says it’s the most rewarding part of working with teens—gaining their trust. Once that trust is established, it is far easier to help teens realize if behaviors in their own relationships are unhealthy. The Family Place offers a variety of training for teachers and other supportive adults. It reports that, by far, the most requested workshop is “Building Trust With Youth.”

In 2022 6,981 youth were served through BE Project classroom education, support groups, leadership groups, school-wide events, and community education programs. Programming is continuous throughout the school year with 12 local schools; 10 additional schools receive more sporadic programming. Be Project also works with various community/recreation centers and other youth services programs.

The core of Be Project programming focuses on four core “BEs”:

BE Informed – recognize warning signs of an unhealthy partner.
BE Aware – identify red flags of abuse.
BE Supportive – know how to reach out and find help.
BE Connected — know how to access resources if in need.

Vanessa explains the program uses various curricula depending on the youth they are working with. Age and developmental level are a consideration, as well as the setting (school vs. community vs. juvenile detention, etc.) and the program’s intention (support group, leadership development, education, etc.). Each of the curricula is backed by research, recommended by the CDC, and has widespread use across the U.S.

After programming, eight in 10 students report they can identify healthy vs. unhealthy relationships; nine in one state they know how to help a friend in crisis.

“Prevention is critical for every young person,” Sterling said. “If we can educate young people from all walks of life, this information can save lives. Education for all young people helps our entire community become safer.”

For details about the BE Project and how to identify warning signs of teen dating violence, visit The Family Place website at: