Digesting the tragic tale of 19-year-old Antoine Willis Jr., nearly burned alive by his mother's boyfriend, I wonder what many of you likely wonder: Will she finally leave him?

As with many stories of extreme, and extremely sad, human behavior, the answer may not be as obvious or easy as we on the sidelines wish it were.

Last Wednesday, Curtis Reed, 54, allegedly doused Willis with lighter fluid as the 19-year-old slept, then chased him as he tried to flee. Willis, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to his head, neck and torso, is listed in fair condition at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, with potentially permanent injuries. Reed remains in Ramsey County jail, charged with first-degree assault. Bail was set at $100,000.

Violence was no stranger to the St. Paul home where Willis lived with his mother, Jodi Stewart, and, for the past few years, her longtime boyfriend, Reed. According to police, Reed was convicted of two misdemeanors (fifth-degree assault and violation of a no-contact order) in 2008 involving Stewart.

At a hospital press conference, Willis told Star Tribune reporter Jim Anderson that Reed had done "horrible things" to his mom, including beating her, slamming her head against a glass and throwing her down steps "right in front of me."

Reed allegedly attacked Willis around 7 a.m., several hours after the teenager and two of Stewart's friends beat Reed for threatening Stewart with a knife.

If there is any silver lining here, it is what Jeff Edleson, director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse, and an international expert on the effects of domestic violence on children, has found: "Children are the reason women stay in abusive relationships. And children are the reason women leave abusive relationships."

In other words, this egregious act could be the final straw for Stewart.

"From the mother's statements and, I'm sure, from the criminal proceedings that will come out of this," Edleson said, "it's highly unlikely the mother will remain with Reed."

Carol Arthur, executive director of Domestic Abuse Project (www.domesticabuseproject.org), agrees. "Absolutely, when women see how the abuse is affecting their children, it's very commonly a turning point. 'It's one thing when it was me,'" Arthur said of women in domestic violence situations. "They rationalize that he's never been abusive to the kids." Once that changes, she often does, too.

Still, no one suggests that this is the end of the story, or the challenges, for this family and others who struggle with domestic violence.

For Willis, the toughest scars may come from what he has learned over the years trying to protect his mother. "It's all too common that teenage boys attempt to intervene on their mother's behalf," Arthur said.

It's a dangerous decision for many reasons. Aside from putting themselves at physical risk, a teen boy's desperate punches could alter his future in irrevocable ways.

"Many young men in prison are there as a result of homicide, after trying to protect their mom," Arthur said. Others grow up to be abusers themselves. Willis' visceral reaction last week is understandable for a young man who saw few options as the violence escalated and too many support systems failed. He deserves to be guided to better, violence-free solutions wherever they exist.

Stewart deserves support, too. We must resist asking, "Why didn't she leave sooner?" from the sidelines of safety. In many cases, a woman stays because she has calculated, better than most academicians, that it's the surest way to keep herself and her children alive.

"Research in the United States and Canada shows that mothers' estimates of risk meet or beat the standardized tools that are out there," Edleson said. "Sometimes, they decide that the safest thing to do is stay with their partners, sometimes they decide to leave, but they are constantly reassessing that decision. Listening to Mom is really important."

With Reed in jail, Stewart can listen to herself, too, which includes trying to understand her complex feelings about Reed. "She just loves him so much," Willis said of his mother.

So, what about Reed? We must keep him in this conversation, for one compelling reason: We want him to stop being violent. We cannot do that until we understand what is driving him to violence.

As I've written many times, Minnesota is a national model for innovative domestic abuse programs, including the Duluth Model, which focuses on victim safety, and the Family Transformation Model, helping people like Reed face his flaws and change. DAP offers therapy not only to women and children who have been victimized, but also to men who abuse; 90 percent of those men grew up in violent homes.

Reed can choose to change. If he doesn't, he should get no more chances. But as Stewart sorts through the complexities of love, life and potential loss, we need to give her room, and resources, to make the best decisions for herself and her family.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com