Virginians Take Heed: Dating Violence is Not Going Away

This post was co-written with M.C. Sungaila, President of Break the Cycle Board of Directors.

The horrifying news of 22-year-old Yeardley Love's tragic death last week was compounded by the equally horrifying news that the alleged perpetrator is none other than her 22-year-old ex-boyfriend, George Huguely. Her death was a violent one: she was found lying a pool of her own blood, her right eye was swollen shut, her face was battered and bruised.

In the past two weeks, other stories of dating abuse turned fatal have also been reported, though not as widely: 22-year-old Tranesha Palms was murdered by her estranged boyfriend at her place of work in Chicago; 18-year-old Allison Owen, a recent high school graduate and honor student, was stabbed to death in a Connecticut parking lot by her 18-year-old ex-boyfriend.

Love and Huguely came from upper-class families, a fact that is less surprising than most news reports would have you believe. Abuse in dating relationships does not discriminate. It happens among people of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background. Their pedigree and social stature could have influenced Love's ability to express concerns she had about Huguely's behavior in their relationship. It isn't easy to decry someone who is handsome, athletic, popular and wealthy to boot. The dynamics of abusive relationships are complicated. When an abuser exerts power and control over a victim -- whether by threat or force -- it can create a seemingly insurmountable barrier to getting help and escaping the relationship.

George Huguely is no stranger to trouble. He has a history of run-ins with the law and has been charged previously with public drunkenness and violent behavior. According to officials at the prestigious University of Virginia (UVA), these prior incidents were never brought to the attention of his coaches or the administration -- and if they had been, one wonders if anything would have been done in response. A history of violence is an important warning sign for potential future behavior and could have served as a red flag for coaches, friends and school administrators.

Here is what we know about dating violence on college campuses: girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest per capita rates of intimate partner violence. As many as one in four female students experience sexual assault over their college career. Of the targeted violent incidents on college campuses over the past 20 years, nearly 34 percent of them were connected to intimate partner violence.

Yet, colleges and universities are notorious for poor responses to stalking, harassment and dating violence. Policies and resources limited to addressing sexual assault are not often responsive to the types of abuse that occur in long-term relationships. Many campuses, including UVA, have established response systems that require students to confront their abuser in a trial-like setting before a committee of their peers. These practices not only endanger the victim, they substantially reduce the likelihood that a victim would ever report dating violence crimes to campus authorities.

It is not clear what, if any, attempts Yeardley Love made to notify authorities, family or friends. But it is clear that she did not have many options at her disposal. Beyond the questionable protocols of UVA, it is possible the police would have offered to press criminal charges and have Huguely arrested. However, most young victims are not looking to cause harm to their abuser, they simply want the abuse to stop -- so filing criminal charges is rarely an option they will consider. Under Virginia law, Love had no other protective recourse.

Last month, Break the Cycle released its third annual State Law Report Cards, a survey of the nation's teen dating violence civil protection laws. And for the third year in a row, Virginia received a failing grade. Virginia is one of eight states that does not allow victims of abuse to obtain restraining orders against dating partners.

While some states proactively allow minors access to protection orders, a number of states do not allow those same protection orders to be issued against another minor. In other words, unless the perpetrator is over the age of 18, the victim is unable to protect herself. Nine states limit the types of behaviors that qualify for a protection order -- including Virginia. In fact, stalking, harassment and property damage are not included in Virginia's statute. So many of the blatant behaviors and warning signs that could have been leveraged for protection were not available to Love. The laws are simply not keeping pace with the realities of dating violence.

Though civil protection orders are merely a piece of paper, they can ensure that otherwise normal behavior is criminalized and can sometimes mean the difference between life or death for an abuse victim. It is vitally important every person who is in a dating relationship -- regardless of their age -- have access to the same protections under the law. Virginians, take heed: if these laws don't improve, we will hear this story again.