Doctors identifying teen abuse victims through series of questions

All patients at a downtown clinic are screened for many issues, including drug use, teen dating violence

SAN ANTONIO – Just because they're not talking about it, doesn't mean it's not happening.

Every year, nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a girlfriend or boyfriend, according to Love Is Respect.

That’s why Dr. Kristen Plastino is asking specific questions when she sees patients at UT Health San Antonio’s Teen Clinic at University Hospital’s Robert B. Green campus downtown.

"Is there someone in your life that's trying to have control of you and your relationship? Or have you ever had someone physically hurt you or sexually abuse you? Has someone touched you when you don't want to be touched? Depending on that answer can really change how you go from there."

It's a difficult series of questions to ask, and to answer.

However, Plastino has found the conversation can be easier in a clinical setting, which is why she screens all of her young patients.

“We do a lot of screening tests when we’re there because we’re looking for everything from alcohol and drug use, to teen dating violence. Both our females and male patients,” she said.

Plastino said when the teenager comes forward with information, it’s a 50-50 chance the parent or caregiver knows.

“If that teen doesn’t want their caregiver to know about it, then we really need to strategize on why that is. What are the family dynamics? What’s going on at home? Some might think this is a normal process because that’s what they see at their home. Is it because their caregiver is one of their abusers? Is it because the caregiver is being abused themselves?” she said. “It’s important that every teen has a trusted adult in their life.”

Domestic violence: How abusers use power to control victims

Many parents and caregivers don’t know what red flags to look for. For teenagers, a lot of that abuse is happening behind their phone screen.

“When they’re falling asleep at night with the Facetime on so that their loved one can see them falling asleep or so nobody else is around, when there’s things that are more controlling, when you see text messages that use language that is damaging to that person, these are all warning signs,” Plastino said.

Ashley Rios’s little sister, Erin Castro, was in an abusive relationship and was just 19 when she was murdered, allegedly by her boyfriend.

Family teaching red flags of teen dating violence in wake of 19-year-old’s murder

Rios and her mother now dedicate their time to visiting high school campuses teaching students about teen dating violence.

Rios is thrilled to hear that doctors are helping start these crucial conversations.

"A lot of people might be even embarrassed or ashamed. Something you wouldn't even tell your family and friends, we would tell our doctor. Sometimes that's actually easier than telling a parent," Rios said.

At the teen clinic, Plastino asks her patients certain questions without a caregiver in the room. If the teen is comfortable talking about their issues in front of their parent or caregiver, Plastino helps them both form a plan.

Plastino is training is other doctors, physician assistants, medical and nursing students and medical residents how to do these screenings.

"We need to include all healthcare providers. Emergency room physicians, pediatricians, OBGYNs, but also our family medicine doctors, anybody in the healthcare profession," she said.

A plan that gives Rios relief, knowing how many professionals are joining the cause.

"This is a big issue in San Antonio and the more we keep pushing that and we keep asking questions, maybe these girls or guys won't be so scared to open their mouth anymore," Rios said.


February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and KSAT is teaming up with our community partners for a PSA campaign contest to advocate against teen dating violence. The winning entry will receive $500 and a class party.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence visit our domestic violence section for a list of resources.

About the Authors: