Last year, President Barack Obama made the proclamation that February would be National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, which would draw attention to the nearly 1.5 million American high school students who have reportedly experienced physical abuse from a partner in any given year.
According to the teen dating violence resource website, Love Is Respect, which is a partnership between Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, one in 10 high school students have been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend, and yet, only 33 percent of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.
More specifically in terms of the black community, other statistics provided by the American Bar Association show that young black women and men experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is at least 22 times higher than the rate of young women and men of any other race. Likewise, one of the top five killers of African-American women between the ages of 15 to 34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.
Shelah Harper knows all too well the reality behind all those numbers. On Nov. 7, 2004, her daughter, Asia Adams, a 21-year-old West Chester University student, was brutally murdered by an ex-boyfriend and his friend.
It was in the basement of Harper’s Philadelphia home (she was out of town at the time) where Thomas Strode, who Adams had been dating for four months, and his accomplice, Simeon Bozic, beat Adams with a shovel before cutting her throat several times. A day later, the two would set the house on fire to cover up their crime. They also withdrew money from Adams’ ATM card and went on a shopping spree.
Thankfully, both Strode and his accomplice were apprehended and later convicted on first degree murder charges and other offenses. They each would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, Harper, who almost 10 years later still openly grieves the loss of her only child, is not willing to let Adams’ story end there.
She speaks about Adams everywhere: in high schools; at colleges and universities; at community centers; and even in churches. In spite of how visibly pained she is, Harper tells Adams’ story over and over again in the hopes that it will inspire those in violent dating situations to get out and seek help.
“I get the strength from God and the strength from the love I had for my daughter, which will never die,” Harper says. “She may be gone, but there are so many Asias out there.”
It would be 10 days before Adams’ killers were caught by police. Harper said that is was during those sleepless nights immediately after the murder and before both men were apprehended that she first began thinking about how she could prevent other young women from meeting the same tragic fate as her daughter. Hoping to relax her nerves, she opened her laptop and began to “redirect all that negative energy into something positive.”
What rose from the tragedy was the Asia Adams: Save Our Children Foundation, a health, welfare and safety organization, serving young folks between the ages of 16-24. So far, more than 6,500 young adults have been served by the Foundation; 75 percent of which are young women. In addition to nutritional education programs, which teach kids how to make healthy meals based on what they already have in their kitchens, and her yoga education, which Harper credits with calming the often troubled minds of many youth she has met through high schools all across the city, it is the Love? Speaks to Me mentoring program, which Harper is most proud of.
Through that program, Harper teaches mostly young women about healthy relationships, particularly how to define and detect the makings of a healthy relationship. “A healthy relationship is where someone reaffirms you, that motivates you, that pushes you to do your best,” Harper says. “He is kind and considerate…He wants to know what makes you happy…He is somebody who is comfortable to talk to, like your best friend. Healthy is about somebody who makes you feel good about who you are. If it’s not any of those things, than you are not in a good relationship.”
But she also speaks to the boys too. She speaks to them about how to avoid becoming a perpetrator or victim of teen dating violence. She also speaks to them about permission. “Because you do have to engage the young men as allies,” Harper says. “Women are their sisters; they are girlfriends; they’re their mothers, so you teach them and you train them.”
Harper believes that teen dating violence is a health issue. It’s not just physical violence but sexual and emotional as well. And although there are some demographics of young adults who are at higher risk than others (like those affected by poverty, homelessness, those living without their parents, those who are frequently truant from school and those with much older partners), she said it is a health issue, which is not foreign to any home, regardless of income, race or your personal parenting philosophies.
But while teen dating violence claims all sorts of victims, Harper said that there are warning signs, which young adults should be leery of, particularly if a partner is one of the following or does the following: is jealous and possessive; starts calling you names; loses his/her temper and breaks things when angry; has severe mood swings or consistent bad moods; blames you for their problems; consistently checks up on you or asks you were you’ve been; follows you (stalking); starts to make you feel unsafe for any reason in your relationship.
“I tell young girls, if you feel something, trust your gut,” Harper says. “That is your instinct. And look at what he does, not what he says. Does he make you feel inferior or less than? Those are the clues.”
Harper said that as long as she has done this, she never gets numb to meeting young women, in particular, who confess to being a victim of – or a relative of someone who is a victim of – intimate partner violence. That usually occurs whenever she is doing community outreach in front of high schools as well as local colleges and universities.
“I will spend my last dying breath doing this,” Harper says. “As far as I am concerned, these girls are the children of my generation. I have no more children and I won’t have any others, but I feel a responsibility, especially given the situation our girls in particular are in, where they are being denigrated by boys; they are being denigrated by each other, they are being looked down upon by the adults.”
The Asia Adams: Save Our Children Foundation has recently partnered with the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing to offer sensitivity training for health professionals around issues of intimate partner violence. The organization has also partnered with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence on raising awareness for the need of curriculum and a disciplinary policy, which speaks to teen dating violence specifically in our public schools. Both organizations are also working to get teen dating violence awareness posters and advertisements to be put on display on buses and train stations around Philadelphia.
Throughout the National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, the Foundation will be collecting cell phones, regardless of condition, which will benefit domestic violence victims. Those tax deductible donations can be sent to 5450 Wissahickon Avenue, Suite C 100, Philadelphia, PA 19144. If you would like more information about the Foundation or to make a financial donation, please visit: http://asiaadamssaveourchildren.org/