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North Hills Monthly

What Can Be Done About Teen Dating Violence?

Apr 30, 2016 12:07PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Despite the fact that one in three teens experiences some kind of abuse in a romantic relationship, only 33 percent of those who have been in or who know about others in abusive relationships report telling anyone about it. As a result of losing his daughter to domestic violence, Dr. Gary Cuccia is hoping to change this statistic, and created the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization to educate youth, parents, communities and educational systems about the dangers of teen dating violence. 

NHMM: Let’s start with the hard part. Why did you start the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization?

Dr. Cuccia: My oldest daughter, Demi, was killed on August 15, 2007; she was stabbed 16 times the day after her 16th birthday. She had broken up with her boyfriend—the first one she ever had—two weeks prior. I didn’t know that for two weeks he had been texting and calling her nonstop, and that he was pressuring her to meet with him. She allowed him to come over when she was home alone, and he killed her. Then he tried to take his own life, but he survived. My daughter didn’t.

NHMM: Were there any signs that she was in danger?

Dr. Cuccia: We had no idea. The boy was a good friend of my son’s; we’d known him for four years and they’d wrestled together. We trusted him. We thought it was a typical teenage relationship—kids date a couple of weeks, it doesn’t work out, they break up and move on. Looking back, there were some red flags, but we didn’t recognize them at the time. Demi said that he didn’t want her to cheerlead any more, and he was picking and choosing her activities. She wasn’t hanging out with her friends as much, but we just thought she wanted to spend more time with her boyfriend. Prior to losing Demi, I’d never experienced domestic violence; I’d never had the conversation with my kids about healthy versus non-healthy relationships. I’d always treated girls with respect—it was a no-brainer.

NHMM: How prevalent is teen dating violence?

Dr. Cuccia: Young people 16 to 24 are at the highest risk; in that age group, one in three girls experiences some form of abuse in a dating relationship, and one in five suffers from physical or sexual abuse from a dating partner. Teen girls face relationship violence three times more than adult women. The most dangerous time is during or right after a break-up; this is when 83 percent of fatalities occur.

NHMM: Does it happen to boys as well?

Dr. Cuccia: It does, though it’s a much smaller percentage. Most of the time, boys suffer from verbal and emotional abuse, though I do know families that have lost sons to controlling ex-girlfriends. Because of the stigma of being abused by a girlfriend, we believe that it’s very underreported, so the statistics are probably not very accurate.

NHMM: What types of signs should parents look for if they think their child might be in an abusive relationship?

Dr. Cuccia: The child’s grades might be slipping; they might even be failing classes. They might be dressing differently. They may not be spending as much time with friends or in activities they once enjoyed. They may even be becoming isolated from their parents; someone with controlling characteristics wants to be in sole control of their partner. They may be receiving constant text messages and becoming anxious when they can’t text back fast enough. It’s so hard with this generation and social media; growing up, we had one phone in the house, which made it easy for the family to pick up on the drama when you were fighting with your boyfriend or girlfriend. That’s missing now; you have to be really perceptive as to what’s going on.

NHMM: So how do you talk to your teen if you think there’s a problem?

Dr. Cuccia: That’s the million dollar question…it’s so challenging. I visit a different school every week to talk about the issue, and I tell students that the biggest compliment they can give to me is to take my message home to their parents. I just got an email from a mother who works nights who wanted to thank me because her daughter waited up to talk to her about what she’d learned. It’s hard to not pry into your teenager’s life, but they need to understand the difference between healthy and non-healthy relationships. You have to open that door.

NHMM: What do you talk about in your presentation?

Dr. Cuccia: I share Demi’s story; I talk about what’s normal, acceptable behavior, and I encourage them to watch each other’s backs. They know what’s going on way more than their parents and teachers do. I tell them to speak up and say something—it could make all of the difference in the world. I try to motivate them to tell an adult if their friends are in abusive relationships, and encourage guys to intervene if they see their buddies imposing themselves on their girlfriends. If they stand up for what a healthy relationship is, those guys might want to change. It’s a challenge, though; some of these kids grow up experiencing domestic violence in their own homes—it’s a learned behavior.

NHMM: Do you see a lot of response from these presentations?

Dr. Cuccia: It’s overwhelming. I have a stack of emails six feet high. The message is powerful and it resonates with kids. I even receive emails from boys who say, ‘I think I have these tendencies, and I don’t want to be like that.’ I got an email from a Seneca Valley administrator last week who said that the very next day after my presentation, a student reported abuse, and they acted on it with urgency. The girl’s family was very thankful.

NHMM: What would Demi think of you doing this?

Dr. Cuccia: I think that she’d be happy that we were touching so many lives; I think she’d be proud of the work that we’re doing. I encourage others to visit our website, like our Facebook page and share her story; the more you share it, the more lives you touch, and the more difference you can make.

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