A 2008 study conducted by the Alameda County Youth Relationship Alliance (formerly the Teen Dating Violence Task Force) reported that 44% of Oakland teens surveyed had been intimidated, physically hurt, and/or emotionally abused by a girlfriend or boyfriend. So if we know that almost half of the young people in this community have been hurt by a dating partner, what happens next? Do we assume that the problem goes away as teens become adults?
No. But that’s where teen dating violence prevention efforts – like Start Strong: Building Healthy Relationships – come in. The Oakland-based Family Violence Law Center’s Relationship Abuse Prevention (RAP) Program was chosen from hundreds of organizations across the country to participate in the four year Start Strong initiative, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Start Strong is the largest national program ever funded to target 11 to 14 year olds in a public health effort to prevent teen dating violence and abuse. Programs like Start Strong and the Centers for Disease Control’s Dating Matters initiative are attempting to raise community awareness around this issue and these efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the White House.
Recently, Vice President Biden (who, as a U.S. Senator in 1990, introduced the very important Violence Against Women Act, which funded hundreds of domestic violence services across the country) launched his “1 is 2 Many” campaign. Biden’s efforts reflect “his longstanding commitment to reducing violence against women specifically on teens and young women ages 16-24.” Prior to that, President Obama signed a proclamation in 2011 designating February as National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. In it, President Obama writes, “Though many communities face the problem of teen dating violence, young people can be afraid to discuss it, or they may not recognize the severity of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.”
Sadly, we here at the RAP Program know that this is all too true for youth in Oakland communities. And President Obama’s statement became very real for us and our youth leaders when we heard the heartbreaking news that Myrna Umanzor, a freshman at San Leandro High School, was murdered by 19 year old Henry Leon, the father of their 9 month old daughter. Henry stabbed Myrna multiple times in her home in Oakland while her family watched and she subsequently died from her injuries – she was only 15 years old. Henry’s body was later found hanging near the Port of Oakland in an apparent suicide.
Before Henry’s body was discovered, some community members voiced their opinion that he should receive the death penalty or serve a lifetime prison sentence without parole. But we at RAP wonder if that’s the answer. Does arresting perpetrators of violence increase people’s safety? Does it eliminate domestic violence from our communities by revolutionizing the way we think about gender? And does it recognize that perpetrators might need support and strength to change their behaviors?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, it’s important to remember that two families are suffering and mourning the loss of loved ones. And a child is going to grow up knowing that her father killed her mother and then killed himself. This alone should be enough to explain why teen dating violence prevention efforts are so important. But it shouldn’t take a loss of life to make things happen and it’s clear that making a proclamation or launching an awareness campaign is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
So we challenge you to think of ways you can spark discussions in your neighborhood, at school, or in your workplace. In honor of the Umanzor and Leon families, let’s make 2012 a year of better, more effective prevention efforts.