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October 24, 2013 / Suzanne Bergenhenegouwen

“Loved to Death” – A “48 HOURS” investigation into dating and breakup violence

“48 HOURS: “Loved to Death” explores dating and breakup violence through an inside look at the murder of 18-year-old Lauren Dunne Astley at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita. At the time of the murder, the couple had broken up, reunited, and then broken up again. The broadcast will provide critical information for parents and young adults on how to recognize warning signs of dating violence and how to avoid dangerous and harmful relationships.

“It is a crime that has no zip code,” says Tracy Smith who reported the story. “It’s urban, suburban, and rural. A relationship ends and what happens is an emotional surge of uncontrollable anger. It can be verbal, physical and sometimes, as in the case of Lauren Astley, it can end in death.” One in three Americans between the ages of 14 and 20 has been the victim of physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse by an intimate dating partner.
On Wednesday October 23rd, 48 HOURS offered a special live webstream preview plus a live discussion on how we in society, but especially those who educate young children, can use Lauren’s story to address the importance of preventing dating and breakup violence through dialogue with teenagers.

Malcolm Astley, Lauren’s father started the discussion by articulating that in dating or breakup violence, there are no perpetrators: both boys and girls can initiate violence in a relationship and share responsibility for how their relationship develops. But when a relationship becomes violent and leads to a break up, “men will often take violent behavior to a lethal level”. Men see breaking-up as a “matter of shame,” but Astley stresses that it is not worth to “win, or not lose, at all costs. It is okay for men to show their grief with real tears”.

In an 18-minute long excerpt from the movie, we learn through interviews with Lauren and Nate’s friends that they were “the ideal couple”. Lauren was “just 5-foot tall, but with a great, bubbly personality” and Nate, Lauren’s first boyfriend, the star football player and kind at heart. During senior year, after two years of dating, their relationship became rocky and in April 2011, Lauren broke up with Nate. While, according to Lauren’s friends, it was a relief for her, Nate started to harass Lauren. Nate’s behavior turned violent at a graduation party, attended by 150 of their classmates, where he slammed Lauren into the party-tent pole after seeing her talk to other boys. Their friends wished they had seen the signs of violence or abuse during the relationship. In hindsight, signs of worrisome behavior noticed by friends included Nate’s looking through Lauren’s phone and preventing her from talking to others, Lauren’s list of reasons for breaking up posted on Facebook, and the fact that they spent much more time at his house than hers. According to Tracey Smith, these subtle signs are of great importance.

When does normal teenage behavior become “dark”? Malcolm Astley regarded Lauren and Nate’s issues as “normal” control issues, something he saw all around him with other couples too. Signs on dating violence, especially among teens, break into so many parts of society. They are expressed in social media and can also be experienced as public humiliation: Nate might have felt his reputation as star football player was on the line. Signs can be hard to recognize as it has such a ripple effect. Therefore, we need to educate young men and women about dating violence and healthy break up skills.

It is especially important to recognize peers and their power as first responders. “Of teenagers who are in abusive relationships, 3% will tell an authority figure, 6% will tell a family member, but 75% will tell a friend” former Middlesex County, Mass., District Attorney Gerry Leone tells 48 HOURS. Casey Corcoran, Program Director for Children & Youth Program and Futures without Violence, says programs to prevent dating violence should start before men start dating. Today, 6 graders are already in romantic relationships, so this is earlier than we might think. He proposes to include talking about issues in relationships in the school curriculum so that youngsters develop vocabulary and understanding of relationships, which enables them to better cope with issues later. Early education can teach young men positive ways to express masculinity, other than the current violent options.

Nate’s parents recognized a change in Nate’s behavior. After the break up, he visited a psychiatrist but they had difficulties seeing their son’s behavior as a normal or abnormal response to the circumstances. Nate’s mom even asked Lauren to check on her son, but that meeting would end Lauren’s life. Lauren’s mom wished she’d told her daughter that “if you break up with someone, never go see him alone again”. It is common for parents to not discuss the signs of a healthy relationship. According to research at Elon University, the school Lauren was supposed to go to, “dating violence is not supposed to happen, so people don’t talk about it”. Peer pressure too forms a barrier for young men to join a conversation, as there is a danger of being seen as “gay” or feminine and girly. The study also found that teenagers often disconnect their personal dating violence from domestic violence: “domestic violence is something for married people with kids”. Yet teens will talk about it “if we ask the right questions and make it part of the school conversation before it becomes a problem” Corcoran says. Malcolm Astley adds that especially parents and educators’ experience can help youngsters understand that when they leave a relationship, he or she “will experience the most difficult time in his or her life”.

When you live in a dynamic world, “broadcasting Lauren’s story is just the tip of the iceberg,” Senior Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky says. Reaching out to young children and having healthy relationship education on all levels in school will allow educators to “take it to the next level” and continue to prevent dating violence.

For a sneak peak of “Loved to Death,” go to http://cbsn.ws/17ctdyL. The full episode will broadcast on Oct. 26, 2013 (10:00 PM ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. CBS also provided a brief tweet you can incorporate into your Twitter feeds: #datingviolence can affect anyone, anywhere. @48Hours investigates its impact on one community Sat, 10/9c: http://cbsn.ws/17ctdyL

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