It all started in a haze of happiness: A new guy, a new love, sweet affection and blinding jealousy.
It ended a few weeks later on an Oakland hillside in the nightmarish glare of ambulance lights, police sirens and so much blood.
One family was ruined. And the young victim's best friend was so devastated that even now, so many months later, he startles awake in the night.
As he lies there, he relives the inky blackness and his too-late arrival. He still hears the sound of his closest friend, whimpering as she struggled to crawl away from her attacker — a boy who claimed he loved her. Ramos saw the early signs, the bruising, and it filled him with rage. But his friend begged him not to say anything. "I was the only person she ever told," he says. "It was love at first sight. She was sure he was the one."
Ramos was never sure he was doing the right thing. And that night at the crime scene, the girl's family told him they never wanted to see his face again.
"What gave the right to this punk," Ramos said, "to take love and turn it into something so dangerous, and into a scary thing, when love, to me, brought peace into my heart."
For more than six months, the 17-year-old has grieved for his best friend. And when the sky lightens, Ramos, who asked that his name be changed to protect the privacy of the victim's family, gets up and does the only thing that provides solace. He interns at a teen dating violence-prevention center, and he teaches Oakland middle-schoolers what it means to love someone the right way.
Romeo, Juliet, Cinderella
It's easy to confuse manipulation, intimidation and emotional abuse for passion. We are raised, after all, in a world of Cinderella myths, where couples fall in love at first sight and jealousy is often interpreted as proof of affection. Where literature romanticizes the idea of young, star-crossed lovers killing themselves. A world where a teenage soul singer can be accused of beating up his young, celebrity girlfriend and still be up for a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award. It wasn't until a month after his arrest that Chris Brown withdrew his name from award consideration.
Though the world, titillated by the lurid Brown- Rihanna headlines, will turn its attention to the next celebrity dust-up, hundreds of thousands of teens will continue to quietly hide their own bruises and tears, inflicted by boyfriends or girlfriends.
Teen dating abuse has reached epidemic proportions, and technology has added new ways to intimidate and control. Nearly one in 10 teens say they have been intentionally punched, kicked or physically injured by their boyfriend or girlfriend, according to federal statistics. A third of the sexually active high schools girls say they have been physically or sexually assaulted by their boyfriends.
And emotional abuse can be just as scarring as the physical variety.
But it's not just teens. It's 11- and 12-year-olds, too.
Dating abuse runs the gamut, of course. The cases that make headlines are the most extreme:
Abuse and intimidation take many forms, says Elizabeth Miller, a UC Davis Medical Center associate pediatrics professor and one of the nation's authorities on abusive relationships. Eight years ago, Miller was treating patients at a Boston community clinic when a 16-year-old came in for a pregnancy test.
"She wasn't using any birth control," Miller said, "and I assumed, like many docs do, that she just needed to be educated. I completely missed the fact that she was in an abusive situation. Two weeks later, she showed up in our ER with a severe head injury. I had specifically asked, 'Were things good, did he treat you well'?"
Doctors need to view teen pregnancy — and the refusal to use a condom — as a red flags signaling dating abuse, Miller said, and our culture needs to rephrase its notions of romanticism.
Back in Boston, Miller conducted a session for middle-school students that included a series of true-or-false statements, including one asking students to indicate whether jealousy and possessiveness were signs of true love.
"And 100 percent of middle-school students said that was true," Miller said. "That really captures the complexity of it. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
The problem appears to be on the rise. National statistics are sketchy, but New York City Department of Health surveys show a 40 percent increase in dating violence cases in the last decade alone. Some attribute the growth to teens dating at younger ages. Others believe technology is partly to blame.
When the Liz Claiborne Foundation ran national studies in 2007 and 2008 on teen dating abuse, it found cell phone calls and texting at "unimaginable frequency," yielding "constant control day and night." Nearly 25 percent of teens involved in serious relationships say they regularly received phone calls or texts from their partners between midnight and 5 a.m. Some received 200 to 300 texts a day from boyfriends or girlfriends wanting to know where they were, who they were with and why. And up to 82 percent of their parents had no idea what was happening.
"Youths don't recognize that as stalking behavior," said Tatiana Colon, head of Alameda County's Teen Dating Violence Task Force. "To them it means, 'They really love me.' Because when someone loves you, you get attention."
"There are many types of controlling behaviors," Miller said. "Inordinate amounts of texting — who are you talking to, why are you talking to them, you can't talk to them — are at the core of abusive behavior."
Ron Davis agrees. He's seen it all — emotional and physical abuse and turmoil — during his years running teen programs for the city of Concord and juvenile hall, as a high school teacher and now at Walnut Creek's Foothill Middle School. The bottom line, he says, is that the teen years are an extraordinarily vulnerable time.
"Girls at 16 are looking for love, anybody who's going to show any affection at all," he said. "They fall in love so fast with anybody. That's when they get taken advantage of."
What's so often missing in our culture's messages to youths, Colon said, is the notion of what a healthy, respectful relationship looks like. Society is quick to point fingers at aggressors or blame victims, but adolescents are still learning how to behave.
"They're all kids," she said. "They both need help — but different help. If no one's addressing it, how can we expect them to address it on their own?"
And, Miller said, girls are just as likely to be the aggressors. The only difference is that where physical abuse occurs, it's more likely to be the girl who lands in the emergency room.
Part of what's so disconcerting about the Claiborne study are the parental statistics. Three-quarters of the parents surveyed did not know their teen had been physically injured by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Teens downplay the seriousness of the situation, the report said, because they don't recognize abusive behavior for what it is, and they worry about consequences.
"I've had youths say, 'Relationships take work,' " Colon said. "Honey, not that kind."
But 28 percent of the teens didn't tell because they feared their parents might take away their computer privileges. About 27 percent worried they'd lose their cell phones and the same number feared they'd be forced to break up.
"They're more concerned," Colon said, "about the repercussions of talking to Mom, than the issues they have."
Rhode Island model
Attorneys general across the United States were so alarmed by the study's findings they launched an initiative last summer to include teen dating abuse in school health curricula. Inspired by Rhode Island's 2007 Lindsay Ann Burke Act, named for a murdered Rhode Island college student, the plan mandates teen dating violence awareness be taught in grades 7 through 12. A similar law exists in Texas, where 15-year-old cheerleader Ortralla Mosley was fatally stabbed at school and Jennifer Ann Crecente, 18, was fatally shot by her ex.
Similar efforts are under way in some other states, and Claiborne's "Love is Not Abuse" curriculum has been distributed to 3,500 schools and community groups across the nation.
In California, it's a different story. White papers were published, including "A Guide to Addressing Teen Dating and Sexual Violence in a School Setting," which came out in February 2008 with funding from the Department of Education and the state Attorney General's Office. But that's not enough, Miller said.
"We need to be doing multiple things," Miller said. "The majority of (school) pregnancy programs and sexuality education currently do not include anything about dating abuse. It's a no-cost thing with immense savings. We have curricula. We have people who are doing sexuality and pregnancy prevention in the schools. Teen dating abuse fits beautifully. It feels to me like a no-brainer. What it would take is a mandate from the state."
Some students agree.
"I took a whole semester of health class and they barely touched it. It's so unfortunate," Concord High sophomore Therese Buendia said. "Teens need to understand that if they are put into this situation, they can do something about it."
There are pockets — Orange County, for example — where teen dating violence is included in the health curriculum. Elsewhere, it's left to small, independent agencies, such as Contra Costa County's STAND! Against Domestic Violence or Santa Clara's Next Door Solutions — to take the initiative.
In Alameda County, Colon's Relationship Abuse Prevention, or RAP, program uses teen mentors to teach younger teens about healthy relationships.
A year-and-a-half ago, 26 community groups came together to form an Alameda-based domestic violence task force to coordinate efforts in a county where 43 percent of teens say they have been physically injured, emotionally abused or intimidated with threats of bodily harm by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Last month the group coordinated Teen Dating Violence Abuse Week with events on different campuses, including Berkeley High and 28 sites in Oakland.
Now, RAP is set to expand, with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a New Jersey-based agency that has dispensed $18 million in "Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships" grants. The RAP grant means more high school mentors, curriculum for all seventh-graders, and a major expansion to draw parents, teachers, counselors and coaches into the circle.
"We know," Colon said, "that it takes a village."
Teens helping teens
Part of that village consists of teen mentors such as David Benoit, an Oakland 17-year-old who stumbled into the RAP elective freshman year. Four years later, the topic has stirred such passion in Benoit that the high school senior is doing his senior paper on dating abuse.
Others signed on for deeply personal reasons. Intern Alicia Rico, 16, wanted to protect others from going through what her mother endured. And Ramos is there to honor his best friend, the girl he didn't know how to save.
"No one would have expected him to know what to do," Colon said. "Peers can't give you good options. Adults know where to get the knowledge. People like us can give you the tools."
Reach Jackie Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Sources: Family Violence Prevention Fund; Teenage Research Unlimited survey for Liz Claiborne Inc. 2007
Occasional arguments are one thing. But patterns of manipulation, emotional abuse and violence can quickly spiral from mental distress to physical harm. One red flag is a warning. Several mean you need help.
Key warnings signs are when your boyfriend or girlfriend:
-- Excerpted from LoveIsRespect.org