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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Sophia and Elizabeth Glazer (Wellesley, Mass.)

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The American Medical Association calls domestic violence a "public health problem that has reached epidemic proportions." Most victims are vulnerable women and children assaulted by male perpetrators. Most victims emerge physically battered or emotionally scarred. An alarming number end up being murdered.

"It's Not Right"

Sophia and Elizabeth Glazer have a game plan that uses youth sports to help stem domestic violence in their community. Their efforts in the local youth football league this past autumn set an example which will hopefully prompt students elsewhere -- athletes and non-athletes alike -- to help make their own communities better places to live and raise families.

The sisters, students at Dana Hall School in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts, were moved by recent accounts of domestic violence allegedly committed against women by Ray Rice and other National Football League stars. The video of Rice slugging his fiancee (and now wife) and dragging her, evidently unconscious, out of a hotel elevator, brought nationwide disgust, which was in no way undiminished by an arbitrator's subsequent ruling ordering the league to reinstate him.

Focusing initially on their nine-year-old brother's football league, Sophia and Elizabeth started a group called Youth Football Cares, which held bake sales to benefit local battered women's shelters. Because the two girls realized that attitudes about domestic violence often develop during childhood and adolescence, the group also distributed brochures at local youth football games.

"Verbal abuse and domestic violence need to be talked about more," 14-year-old Sophia told WHDH television news. "We just thought the younger boys need to know that it's not right," added 11-year-old Elizabeth. 7News Boston WHDH-TV

The results so far seem promising. "I think by the end of the season," said Sophia, "all the boys understood it, which was wonderful." The sisters plan to continue their efforts next year.

Sustained Misery

The Glazer sisters are on to something which can improve, and indeed save, lives by influencing values at the grassroots level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls domestic violence "a devastating social problem that impacts every segment of the population," bringing sustained misery that no society should tolerate.

Here are the grim statistics:

  • According to a recent Supreme Court decision, "[t]his nation witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year." 
  • The U.S. Justice Department reports that three women and one man are killed each day by their intimate partners, such as a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. 
  • From 2001 to 2012, the number of American women murdered by current or former partners was nearly double the number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
  • Police departments receive more calls reporting domestic violence than any other type of crime, and responses consume up to one-third of all police time. Domestic violence accounts for about 20% of all violent crimes reported to police each year, even though it is estimated that almost half of all incidents go unreported because victims feel ashamed, fear the perpetrator's retribution, worry that they will not be believed, or doubt that reporting will end the pain. 
  • Domestic violence can destroy entire families. Conservative estimates suggest that in at least 30% of all intimate partner victimizations, the abuser also assaults children in the household. An estimated ten million children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, including young children held in a battered caregiver's arms during the assault, or older children who intervene seeking to end the beating. From simply witnessing domestic violence in the home, children may suffer profound adverse effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other emotional and behavioral problems that diminishes school performance, encourages aggressive behavior toward others, and leaves permanent emotional scars. 

Promoting Healthy Relationships

By reaching out to elementary-schoolers, Sophia and Elizabeth Glazer are also on to something else important, because children are not born with attitudes about violence or non-violence. Researchers explain that these attitudes are learned behaviors, heavily influenced by what children see and experience as they grow up.

Just four months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reaffirmed its call for early positive influence. "Because a substantial proportion of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence is experienced at a young age, primary prevention of these forms of violence must begin early."

The CDC explains that prevention efforts depend on "strategies that address known risk factors for perpetration and [that change] social norms and behaviors." These strategies include "the promotion of healthy relationship behaviors . . . , with the goal of helping adolescents develop these positive behaviors before their first relationships." The agency concludes that "early promotion of healthy relationships while behaviors are still relatively modifiable makes it more likely that young persons can avoid violence in their relationships."

Early promotion of healthy relationships can happen in the home and the schools, but it can also happen from youth league instruction that reaches beyond X's and O's to citizenship. Instruction can come from parents, coaches, players themselves and . . . yes, even sisters or brothers. An estimated 35 million children play at least one organized sport each year, and no other activity outside the home and schools holds similar potential to instill in an entire generation wholesome values that will carry into healthy adulthood.

Problems and Solutions

Star athletes who play in the National Football League and other professional sports contribute their share to the nation's social problems, including the domestic violence epidemic. But Sophia and Elizabeth Glazer demonstrate how sports can also be part of the solution.
Social change through sports often begins with individual or collective efforts driven by care and initiative. Sometimes the drive comes locally, one community at a time. Sometimes the leaders are citizens not yet old enough to drive a car or vote.

Sources: Class Act: Sophia and Elizabeth Glazer, http://www.whdh.com/story/27554993/class-act-sophia-and-elizabeth-glazer (Dec. 12, 2014); Douglas E. Abrams et al., Contemporary Family Law, ch. 6 (3d ed. 2012; 4th ed. 2015 forthcoming); Jonathan D. Thackaray et al., Intimate Partner Violence: The Role of the Pediatrician. Pediatrics.  2010;125:1094; Centers for Disease Control, Matthew J. Breiding et al., Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Rep., Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization - National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011 (Sept 5, 2014).

A hat tip to MomsTEAM Institute's Executive Director Brooke de Lench for bringing the Glazers' story to my attention.