By Ada M. Ãlvarez
For being 23-years-old, Puerto Rican-born Ada Alvarez has accomplished a lot. She is the author of two books, is the youngest novelist in Puerto Rico, has her Masters in Science in Mass Communications with an Investigative and Multimedia Track, named a 2007 Volunteer of the Year and the publisher of a website that garners more than 100,000 visits from around the world.
The reason for her success is her mission to elevate awareness of an old but silent issue — domestic and teen dating violence. Her first book Lo que no dije (What I didn’t say), written when she was 16-years-old, is Alvarez’s effort to stop the silence that shrouds the issue.
“I was volunteering at a newspaper called Tineller at 15 and wrote about domestic violence,” Alvarez said. “I found out about dating violence and saw that my first boyfriend had many of the signs. Based on the investigation I did for that article, I created my novel and advocate on this issue (dating violence).”
Believing that the first step in helping eradicate domestic violence is for people to recognize it and it’s signs, Alvarez created a web site based on her first book. The bilingual site, Lo que no dije, provides visitors with a survey to fill out to determine whether or not they are victims of domestic or teen dating violence, resources to access for help and plans of action to get out of the situation. In addition, Alvarez has chaired over 60 conferences educating the public about the issue.
In 2008, Alvarez came to the United States to pursue her Masters degree. She wanted to write her thesis on whether the dating violence law in Miami was efficient, unlike what could be found in Puerto Rico, and if there were a lot of reported cases.
Yet when the infamous Rihanna and Chris Brown incident happened, Alvarez decided to see if this high-profile case was getting people to pay attention to dating violence. What resulted from her investigation was her thesis “Victims of Silence.”
As she did in Puerto Rico with her book, Alvarez has created a companion web site to her work. The Spanish site, Victimas del Silencio, chronicles her investigation into the issue in the Miami/Dade County area.
Currently, Alvarez is working as part of a teen dating violence prevention initiative in the Miami area while applying to universities to pursue a PhD in journalism. Her wish is to become a communications professor and a women’s rights leader.
(Editor’s Note: The following is the second installment of “Victims of Silence.”)
Victims of Silence: Part II
When the incident happened between Rihanna and Chris Brown, public opinion was divided between fans of the two singers. Chris went to Virginia to be with his family and Rihanna went to Barbados.
After a week without any communication with the media, Brown sent a press release saying he was going to be a better person after all passed, he didn’t mentioned Rihanna or the beating. TMZ, an internet portal for celebrity news made public the picture the police took of Rihanna for the criminal report. Officer Rebecca Reyes from the LA Police Department was accused of selling the confidential picture to the press, something illegal.
However, the photo spoke for itself. Rihanna’s face was disfigured. After the photo was shown on TMZ’s web site, other media outlets bought it and published and aired it on hundreds of shows. After that, Rihanna sent a press release saying she was alright but she wasn’t going to speak about the incident.
Various organizations asked to remove Brown from campaigns that targeted teens, and some companies did remove him. Before the incident, Brown was chosen to act in the movie Bone Deep, that will be released in 2010, but his participation was cancelled. After this happened, Brown sent a press release saying he was going to get therapy.
The police gathered the evidence and he was accused of two charges: threat and assault. While the legal case was being discussed some TV shows and magazines announced they were together again.
Both singers stayed in P.Diddy’s house while fans started to write in blogs how shocked they were by the news; others even started the rumor that they got married and that she was pregnant. The Chicago Sun Times announced they were going to record an album together and that they were even going to start a tour called Mea Culpa.
While all these rumors were out, Brown wrote on fans’ web pages asking for votes so he could win the “Male Singer of the Year” prize at the Nickelodeon Awards. Rihanna’s family sent a press release saying they couldn’t locate Rihanna and asked her to come back home. After weeks of speculation and rumors, news broke that they were officially broken up. Brown pled not guilty, while Rihanna’s father questioned the truth of Brown’s plea.
The news that the two singers had reconciled made at least 15 professional womens, psychology and social workers organizations send press releases talking about the reconciliation and/or honeymoon phase while also stating how common was this turn of events in domestic/dating violence situations.
Because this incident happened, studies that had been done before were no longer overlooked. The necessity of revising them grew and everybody started to ask what was the root of this problem.
In schools and universities
The National Center of Crime Statistics released a report on dating violence cases in colleges. The study done from 1995 to 2002, found that 32% of college students reported violence by an ex-partner and 21% from a current one.
Also 39-54% of the victims of dating violence stay in a relationship that is physically abusive. One out of five of those college students reported being pushed, slapped or punched by their partner. College girls were being stalked (13%) and from that percentage, 42% were being stalked by a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend.
A study done in March of 2009 from the Department of Justice shows that one out of every ten high school students have been hit by their partner.
Juan Carlos Portieles, a 30-year-old and resident of Hollywood, Florida, went to a station of the Miami Dade Police Department with scratches admitting he had killed his girlfriend and that her body was in his car.
Portieles was arraigned on October 12, 2009 on a charge of second degree murder for Jaclyn Elisse Torrealba (18), a freshman at Florida International University. She has last been seen at the club Space the night before at 2:00 a.m., in a black dress with DJ Seasunz, the artistic name of Portieles.
Portieles told police they had been a couple for the last two years. Based on the police report, she was killed after they started fighting. Detective Rolando de la Osa from Miami Dade Police authorized Portieles’ arrest after he confessed to the murder.
According to Portieles, the couple fought in the car around 6:30 a.m. and Portieles started to hit and bite her before she fought back. In the middle of the fight, Portieles started shocking her till she stopped moving; she died from asphyxia. With her body still in the passenger seat of his car, he visited his friends telling them what had happened; one of them called the police.
When the police got the call, they issued an alert looking for a homicide suspect driving a Toyota Camry, said detective Alvaro Zabaleta, spokesperson of the Miami Dade Police. After 12 hours of killing Torrealba, Portieles went to the police and confessed “everything he had done.”
Jaclyn Torrealba went to G. Holmes Braddock High School and started in 2009 to study at Florida International University. “She wanted to be a lawyer, she was my daughter, mi sweetheart, my angel”, said Pablo Torrealba, her father, to Jennifer Lebovich a reporter from the Miami Herald.
Torrealba was an honor student. Melissa Saavedra (18), her debate team school partner said everybody admired her. “She didn’t have any complaints in her life. She had everything that she wanted and it’s very sad that it has ended like this.”
A study published in 2002 by Tiffanny Zwicker revealed that 86% of girls who have been threatened, hurt or insulted would tell a friend about it, while only 7% said they would go to the police.
“The schools give some information and speak about pregnancies and drugs, but there are almost no programs or no attention whatsoever that addresses what is a healthy relationship and what is dating violence”, said Esta Soler president of The Family Violence Prevention Fund.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund conducted a study that found that 72% of students in eighth and ninth grades are already dating. By the time they reach high school, 54% have been through at least one violent relationship.
Is it a crime?
On May 5, 2009, Brown was charged with two criminal penalties: assault and threat. On June 22, he was declared guilty and sentenced to five years probation and six months community service. The judge, Patricia Schnegg, also sent him to a year of domestic violence therapy and prohibited him from getting closer than 100 yards to Rihanna. If they were to participate in public events, he had to be apart from her by 10 yards, (this order is in effect for the next five years).
It was to Rihanna’s benefit that the incident happened in California. California, based on a state report done by Break the Cycle, is one of the best states that protects dating violence victims.
Break the Cycle did a state-by-state report analyzing the laws and how accessible they were to minors that wanted to seek a protection order under the dating violence provision, if they had any. “Only five states got A’s: California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Florida and eight other states got B”, said AJ Pearlman, State Policy Attorney of Break the Cycle.
More than six organizations against domestic violence thought Chris Brown’s sentence was not enough based on the severity of the beating and the example and precedent he represented among youth. On July 29, 2009, Brown published a video on Youtube for Rihanna and his fans, saying he was sorry and, for the first time, accepting responsibility for hitting her.
The code 748.046 of the State of Florida establishes that to file an injunction under the dating violence law three requirements must be met: the relationship must have existed in the past six months, it should be characterized by sexual affection and intimacy and the interaction and meetings of the parts should be continuous. There is however something different, dating violence in comparison to domestic violence is not a crime.
Using the definition of a dating violence relationship works only to inquire about a protection order. When there are cases of abuse, like Chris Brown and Rihanna, it’s processed as a crime of aggravated assault, threats and/or homicide. These cases are not identified as dating violence. The only thing we can know with certainty from the data from these cases is how many protection orders were requested and sometimes the age of the victim (and they have to be over 18), nothing else.
In 2008, the state of Florida reported 77,849 cases identified as aggravated assault. Of those, 12,305 where committed in Miami Dade County. Based on the crime report, 5,230 of those were arrested. 1,049 cases were committed by spouses and people living together that were not married.
In the “others” category, there are 363 which do not appear as linked to dating violence, or anything else for that matter, because those cases do not have a criminal penalty. The problem with this is that the statistics are not reflecting how many crimes are committed between couples who do not live together, including teens.
If there were more assaults, beatings and threats done by boyfriends or girlfriends then protection orders that are filed, we wouldn’t know, because they are not being categorized.
The domestic violence and dating violence laws are recent. Forty years ago, civil and feminist groups created a movement against violence against women. At the end of the nineties, it was brought to the media’s attention and it has begun to be been seen as a public health problem.
The most important document about this issue in the United States, because it made it a federal law, is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), that was supported by now Vice-President Joe Biden, when he was a Senator. It was signed on September 13, 1994.
It didn’t include anything about dating violence.
The VAWA is re-approved in the Senate from time to time, usually with new or added specifications. It was approved in 2000 without updates and in 2005, stalking, threats and dating violence were included.
The 2005 update of the VAWA made domestic violence a public policy issue and from that funds are assigned for prevention programs, studies and shelters for victims. In 2011, it will be re-approved again. Groups are lobbying so that it includes more rights for foreign domestic violence victims in the United States.
Not all of the states have a dating violence law. On September 24, 2007, two students died in Oviedo, Florida: Michael Ruschak (22) and Tiffanny Barwick (19), students at the University of Central Florida, were killed by Andrew Allread (21) after he threatened Tiffany, his ex-girlfriend with murder.
Barwick tried to leave Allread and went to her friend Michael to tell him that Allread threatened to kill her the next time he saw her. One day, Tiffany went back home and saw that her computer had a picture of her with what appeared to be bullet holes. Michael, her friend, went with her to the police to get a protection order, but they couldn’t because there wasn’t a law for that.
Police told them they had to first see Allread threatening her before they could do something about it. Tifany went back to her house and Allread was there; she called 9-1-1 and shots were heard. Allread shot Michael, who tried to help Tiffany, while Allread later followed Tiffany to the bathroom, where she was hiding, and shot her seven times.
For many, the fact that they went to the police and nothing was done was more shocking than the shooting itself. The newspapers told the story and it got into the hands of someone who did something about it.
“My eyes were teary when I read the news. I could feel the fear that the girl had and felt deception by the fact that nothing had been done. Here I was, with the power to do laws; I just felt that I had to do something”, said Kurt Kelly, a Florida State Representative of the 24th district (Marion).
“I analyzed every legal resource, what existed and what was missing. I worked on the draft and didn’t contact the families that inspired me at least three weeks after. I brought them to my office and it was difficult for me to hear them and see them, but they, as well as other representatives and law enforcement offices, were supportive. I proposed and presented this inclusion to the law on November 29, 2007 and I started telling the story of these kids. I called this bill 313, the Barwick-Ruschak Act. It was unanimously approved and became an official inclusion to the law on July 2, 2008,” said Kelly.
Since then, it was included in the code 748.046 where dating violence is now defined under the domestic violence law on the process of asking for protection orders. There isn’t an official average of people asking for protection under the dating violence law in the system. However, asking for the reports in the Miami Dade Police Department at Biscayne Boulevard, almost 30 cases were reported monthly there in 2008, and that is just one police department.
Dating violence cases are kept in silence because they are not filed under that name; they are not labeled if it includes beating or even death. Based on a study done by Teenage Research Unlimited, teens between 13-to-19-years-old in 2005, only 33% of them in an abusive relationship told someone about it.
This study didn’t count college students like Barwick and Ruschak. “I know that this law won’t stop dating violence, that alone doesn’t work, It needs a community effort and education about it, but at least if someone like Tifanny needs to seek out help, something can be done,” said Representative Kelly.
This kind of violence can be indicative of a potential pattern. A report in May 2009 from the Family Prevention Fund found that almost 50% of young married couples that were experiencing domestic abuse saw domestic violence in their own homes while growing up. The teens had higher possibilities of being in or staying with abusive relationship themselves.
Rihanna, in her first exclusive interview with Diana Sawyer in Good Morning America on November 5, said that she saw domestic violence in her home. Chris Brown admitted, on the September 2, 2009 Larry King Live show, that he had grown up seeing how his stepfather beat up his mother.
Brown went to the Larry King show with his mother and his lawyer, Mark Geragos. While Larry King narrated details of the incident, Brown said, “I’m amazed because that is not what I want to be as a person or who I promised I would become.”
There are more than 20 studies that have found that dating couples who are violent can evolve into marriages with domestic violence. A study done in 2007 by the Department of Justice showed that more than 960,000 domestic violence incidents occur each year in the United States.
This study found that this number might be only 40% of the cases, because almost 60% go unreported. Statistics from the FBI show that at least three women are killed by their partners each day, and that the violence might have started while they were dating.
(Editor’s Note: The final installment of Victims of Silence will be published on Sunday.)