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.
It was months before the particulars of the abuse emerged. In the interim, the girl’s parents had no explanation for her hostility and defiance, for her dramatic weight loss and thinning hair, for the sobbing they heard in her bedroom. Doctors responded by committing her to a psychiatric unit. But her mother didn’t believe them when they told her that her daughter, now heavily medicated, would be unable to finish high school in anything other than a residential therapeutic setting.
“I did not know what was wrong, but I knew my daughter was not mentally ill,” says the girl’s mother, whose persistent inquiries at school and decision to hire new doctors uncovered disturbing details of a relationship that had previously raised no red flags for her or her husband. “He had an Eddie Haskell thing going on,” the dad recalls of the boy, “always polite and caring in front of us.”
When the girl finally opened up to her parents and the new doctors, they quickly headed to juvenile court to seek a protective order to keep the boy away. That wasn’t as easy as it seemed, though.
“[The judge] was inclined to give the kid the benefit of the doubt,” says the lawyer who has represented the girl at several court hearings over the past six months. “He gave him a stern talking-to and hoped that would be the end of it.”
But the boy continued to harass the girl, enough that the school intervened on her behalf and the judge at last issued an order of protection. The police officer who notified the boy testified at a later hearing that he made clear that the boy was to stay at least 150 feet away from the girl, and that he was to cease all contact with her. Failure to do so, the officer instructed, would amount to a violation of a civil harassment order, a criminal offense that could land him in jail.
But he continued to bully her at school and online, anyway, and the school finally suspended him. Even after that, he persisted in bothering her, which drove her parents to go back to court. The judge extended the protective order for another year but, once again, did not refer the boy’s repeated violations for criminal prosecution.
“The burden of proof initially was on our family to prove all wrongdoings, and the predator initially was given lots of leeway by the courts and opportunities to get his act together,” says the mom. “But he continued to defy the school and the court with every step. We reported each and every incident to the police, and now we hope that with the court’s protection, we will be safe.”
Nearly two years after the murder of Allison Myrick, Robert Gulla’s trial is set to begin next month. Nathaniel Fujita, meanwhile, remains in jail as the Astley case winds its way through the courts. Their stories, and others, follow an all-too-familiar and tragic pattern: A relationship begins. The boy gets obsessed. The girl pulls away. The boy gets emotionally and physically abusive. Where it ends depends on the families, the courts, the police, and the boy’s stability — or lack thereof.
Today, the girl’s hair is growing back in its natural shade and her weight has stabilized. She is baby-sitting for the neighborhood kids again and hanging out with her old friends. She is more anxious and less trusting now — she keeps 911 on her cell phone speed dial. But the boy who stole a year of her life unwittingly strengthened her spine. “I am not a victim,” she says. “I am stronger now.”
The mom does what moms do — she blames herself for not seeing the signs, for not acting sooner. But parents — or schools, or doctors, or judges, for that matter — cannot eradicate dating violence alone. It will take a communal effort by all those parties. Instead of targeting specific unhealthy behaviors based on the headlines of the week — bullying, obesity, drug use, dating violence — we ought to be developing unified educational and public policies that model healthy behavior to young people and that attach real consequences when those standards are violated.
“I wish we were not so ignorant about dating violence when this began,” says the mom. “We are coming out the other side, but I stay awake sometimes thinking about what might have happened.”