The recent death of Morgan McCaffery in Abington sheds a light on teen and young adult relationship abuse, a growing but under-recognized public health issue that can have immediate and lasting physical and psychological impacts.
She was a new graduate preparing to start the next chapter of her life, when someone who claimed to love her ended her story, violently.
She was stabbed to death. The coroner counted 55 wounds. Eleven of them were to her back as she was trying to escape.
Kristin Mitchell was 21 years old when her life ended on June 3, 2005. Her estranged boyfriend eventually was convicted of her murder.
Fifteen years later, another new graduate’s story also ended violently, also allegedly by someone who loved her.
Like Mitchell, Morgan McCaffery, 18, was stabbed to death. The coroner counted more than 30 wounds.
A partial blade and knife handle were found under her body at SEPTA’s Meadowbrook train station parking lot in Abington, according to police. McCaffery’s ex-boyfriend, Gilbert Newton III, 18, of Philadelphia, is charged with murder in her July 27 death.
McCaffery is the youngest in a recent string of murders in Montgomery County where domestic abuse is suspected.
She is also the second young adult since April — and the fourth since Mitchell’s death in 2005 — allegedly murdered at the hands of a current, or former, romantic partner, according to Montgomery County’s domestic violence service agency.
Teen and young adult relationship abuse is a growing but under-recognized public health issue that can have immediate and lasting physical and psychological impacts, medical and domestic violence experts said.
Recent comprehensive studies on dating and relationship abuse have found that 18 to 24 years olds are at a “very high risk” for domestic violence and domestic homicide.
The 2017 National Survey of Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence, the first study to provide a comprehensive portrait of teen dating violence, found two-thirds of U.S. youth between 12 and 18 who had a romantic relationship in the past year, reported they had been victimized or perpetrated violence.
Psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse reported (over 60%), according to the study. Another 18% reported they were victims of sexual abuse, and 18% also reported physical abuse.
Fewer adolescents admitted to perpetrating acts of physical abuse (12%) or sexual abuse (12%).
Age and lack of life experience are among the factors that put this age group at higher risk for dating abuse and violence, according to domestic violence experts.
Teens and young adults are more likely to take risks, but are reluctant to confide in adults. They are prone to impulsive behavior and less likely to consider the repercussions.
Their near obsessive reliance on instant electronic communication and social media use has further blurred boundaries for when behavior crosses the line into abuse, experts said.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic also has aggravated existing risk factors by isolating teens from friends and others who can recognize possible signs of abuse, and put a damper on opportunities to pursue new romantic interests.
In the days following the Morgan McCaffery’s murder, her cousin, Haley McCaffery, wrote on Facebook that the family hoped to draw more attention and resources to domestic violence in teen relationships. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Haley McCaffery for further comment through social media.
In one of those posts, Haley McCaffery wrote she hoped her cousin’s death would give other young women the courage to stand up.
“My hope is that through her story, at least one girl (hopefully many more) will have the strength to walk away, to put their safety first before anyone else’s feelings, (then) reach out when they feel unsafe, and to know there are resources to help them.”
Stories of teen dating violence are not ones that people typically hear about until they turn tragic, said Marianne Lynch, executive director of A Woman’s Place, Bucks County’s domestic violence service provider and shelter operator.
“As a society we have a limited understanding of what domestic violence looks like and what it is,” said Lynch.
“Certainly it’s just also an extremely painful reality to even contemplate let alone, when it’s something we have to face. It’s a painful thought that our kids are experiencing anything abusive.”
Adolescence is already a time of heightened emotions, where teens walk the tightrope between childhood and adulthood. It’s a time that comes with increased pressure of fitting in among peers.
Romantic relationships are a new experience and teens face additional challenges in the dating arena. They may be reluctant to break up with someone they have to see everyday in school and fear the potential loss of shared friendships and social standing.
“That social fear is like a big part of their world. It’s really, really important for how adults respond and even how fellow teenagers respond to a teenager who may be in an abusive relationship,” Lynch said.
Social media and electronic communication has made constant monitoring of messages, likes, comments and posts feel like normal behavior, creating resistance to requests for privacy. It’s unhealthy behavior that Kristen Kane, a community educator with A Woman’s Place, sees often.
“I see that a lot where people get mad at their partners for not letting them see their phones,” Kane said.
Teens also can form unrealistic expectations of romance and love based on outside influences that are portrayed as normal, especially movies and television, said Kate Amtmann, 17, a recent graduate of Central Bucks East High School.
“In Hollywood especially we are shown these romanticized possessive relationships and young teens kind of put it up on a pedestal and that is their ideal relationship,” she said.
The Doylestown Township teen is the outgoing president of the Young Adult Advisory Board for A Woman’s Place. The group serves as an education and outreach arm of the organization to raise awareness of dating violence among their peers.
While she has not personally experienced dating abuse or knows anyone who has, Kate is confident it’s happening.
“I think it’s occurring because teens don’t know the red flags to look out for and that is why we try to teach them,” she said. “It isn’t talked about enough. It’s not necessarily taboo, it’s uncomfortable.”
Teens aren’t the only ones feeling uncomfortable, either.
Kate’s mom, Dori Amtmann, doesn’t remember ever talking to her only daughter about what a healthy romantic relationship looks like. They are talks she regularly has now with her 13- and 16-year-old sons.
“It never entered my mind they might need to know some boundaries,” Amtmann added. “Sometimes we don’t look at our children for the adults they are. It’s a hard transition as a parent to think of relationships and them having those interactions. You almost feel like you have time.”
A missed signal
More time is something Bill Mitchell wishes every day that he had.
The last time he saw his daughter Kristin was the day she graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. It was also the first time he and his wife met her boyfriend, 28-year-old Brian David Landau.
He and his wife noticed no sign of serious trouble in the relationship; in retrospect, though, one phone conversation still haunts him, Mitchell said.
His wife was talking with Kristin when she casually asked how her relationship with Landau was going.
Kristin responded that it wasn’t the perfect relationship. The conversation then moved to a new subject, he said.
It was only after her murder that Mitchell learned his daughter was in the process of breaking up with Landau when she was killed, three weeks after her college graduation.
She told Landau she wanted him to move out of the Conshohocken condo she had recently moved into. She took back his key and security card the day she was murdered, her father said.
Later that night, Landau showed up and lied about where he was going to sleep that night, and Kristin agreed to let him sleep on the couch. Once inside the condo, he killed her.
Landau eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He had his first parole hearing earlier this year and was denied release, Mitchell said.
For the last 15 years, Mitchell, who lives in suburban Maryland, has devoted his time to speaking out about dating violence among young adults.
He has given more than 100 speeches at colleges and high schools. He self-published an e-book, “When Dating Hurts.” He and his wife have raised money for domestic violence prevention programs.
Had he known then about the subtle signs of abuse and how to take action, he believes he’d still have plenty of time to spend with his daughter.
“Do yourself a favor, do your family a favor, and get some awareness about dating violence and become good at asking questions,” Mitchell said.
On a late May afternoon in 2013, Julianne Siller, 17, was walking with her boyfriend Tristan Stahley in a Skippack park when they started arguing.
Stahley, then 16, was angry that Siller was going out too much without him. She reportedly smashed his cell phone.
The couple had been dating on and off for about nine months. Friends claimed the couple had problems, but Siller wanted to stick it out because she believed she could change Stahley.
But during the walk, Stahley announced they were breaking up again, according to police.
He then took out a knife and stabbed the Spring Ford High School senior 70 times, killing her, according to authorities. Stahley, who was tried as an adult for first-degree murder, was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
When a relationship is ending is the most volatile time for abuse victims, according to domestic violence experts. It’s not unusual for that danger window to last six months to a year after a breakup.
“Even people who never showed violence before can turn dangerous really quickly,” said Beth Sturman, executive director of Laurel House, Montgomery County’s domestic violence service provider and shelter operator..
For teens and young adults prone to poor judgment and reckless behavior, the situation can be more dire.
A 2019 University of Washington School of Medicine study of domestic homicides found breakups and jealousy precipitated more than a quarter of the 150 of young adult deaths between 2003 and 2016.
The average age of girls killed was 17, according to the study.
Those statistics are why advocates and educators believe early education and frequent conversations about what healthy relationships look like and what to do when abuse is suspected is critical.
Adolescents are more likely to disclose abuse to someone their age, who are often not emotionally equipped to give advice or assist in helping them get out of an abusive relationship.
A Woman’s Place does presentations on safety, respect, healthy communications and respecting boundaries with children as young as fourth grade, Lynch said.
But it’s important for parents and other adults to have those conversations too, before kids start dating, so they know they have “safe adults” they can rely on when they have problems or questions, Lynch said.
Laurel House also does abuse awareness presentations in middle and high schools, and colleges, Sturman said. It also provides abuse awareness training to school staff.
The agency is also fast-tracking outreach efforts targeting 18 to 24 year olds following the murders of McCaffery and 24-year-old Jaylin Thomas, who was stabbed to death in April allegedly by his 21-year-old girlfriend after an argument over his social media activity.
Among those efforts are using platforms that age group is most familiar with, such as placing public service ads on Instagram and Facebook, Sturman said.
Later this month Laurel House will launch free virtual weekly grief support groups for people impacted by a loss involving domestic violence. One group will target adults, the other young adults and teens.
As early as next month Laurel House also hopes to launch its new teen text message hotline, which is modeled after the national anti-dating violence textline, #LoveIsRespect.org
They are efforts that Sturman hopes will spread awareness of available resources for victims and families, though she acknowledged it’s often an uphill battle.
“It’s hard for people to convince people it can be dangerous and it’s really hard with teens,” she added. “They drive fast, they don’t wear helmets, they take chances. They don’t wear masks. They’re kids.”