SHE DYED HER HAIR the color he liked. She shut out her friends after he ordered her to stop talking to them. She had sex before she was ready because he told her it was the only way to prove her love.
It wasn’t enough.
He called her a whore because she remained Facebook friends with boys she had known since elementary school. He slammed her into a wall of lockers because she did not return his text messages fast enough. He threatened to kill himself if she ever left him. She lost 20 pounds from her tiny frame. Her crying jags increased; her grades dropped. Her hair began to fall out. She kept a closed bedroom door between herself and the confused parents she had once considered her best friends.
This is the face of teenage dating violence before the coroner gets called, a high school girl in an oversize sweater and stretch pants, curled up defensively on a living room couch in an upper-middle-class Massachusetts town. It’s a story of help delayed and pain prolonged because doctors failed to recognize the signs of dating abuse, and because judges failed to put an immediate stop to it. It’s a story of second chances for him and emergency safety plans for her — a story without names because a Massachusetts juvenile court judge ruled last month that the boy remains a potential threat to the girl.
If not for her mother’s instincts and the vigilance of a school system, this could well have been the story of Lauren Astley and Nathaniel Fujita, or Allison Myrick and Robert Gulla. Fujita is the Wayland teen who today is being held without bail, charged in the slaying of 18-year-old Astley last July after she broke off their romance and made plans to begin college in North Carolina. Gulla, from Shirley, is scheduled to stand trial next month in Middlesex Superior Court for allegedly stabbing 19-year-old Myrick to death last year after the Fitchburg State student took out a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend.
MURDER GETS OUR ATTENTION. Dating violence does not. But federal statistics document its pervasiveness: Girls age 16 to 24 are the most likely victims, and one in five high school girls reports having been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. Yet we respond with bewilderment when good girls from good homes turn up battered or dead at the hands of boyfriends who seemed so nice. The problem is not just denial. It’s delusional thinking — that the kids will work it out, that she will walk away, that he will respond to warnings and move on.
It is rarely that easy. Until judges enforce the state law that makes violating a civil protection order a criminal offense, abusers will continue to ignore restraining orders. Until schools heed calls urging them to teach students how to respond to dating violence, abuse will remain in the shadows. Until parents and physicians educate themselves about the symptoms of abuse, they will continue to misread the problem, and the children involved will remain at risk.
Consider, for example, the cases of both Gulla and Fujita. Gulla was charged in multiple incidents of assault and battery in the months leading up to his alleged murder of Myrick. He was released twice by police on his own recognizance and was supposed to appear in court to face those charges. Instead, prosecutors say, he violated a restraining order and killed his ex-girlfriend. Fewer details have emerged about the Fujita case, but some simple facts are known: Astley broke up with her boyfriend and was headed out of state to college. Fujita responded by allegedly strangling her with a bungee cord, cutting her throat, and dumping her body in a swamp. Dating violence among teenagers may not be as well known as domestic abuse among adults is, but it’s a real problem, and the emotional and physical pain inflicted in young, toxic relationships is often devastating.
Illustration by Shout