Looking back there were signs, but they were deceptively subtle. Her friends didn’t like him, he rarely came to her house, he couldn’t seem to let her go.
One day after seeing Nathaniel Fujita convicted of murdering his former girlfriend — her only daughter, Lauren Astley — Mary Dunne reflected on the ways parents can prevent tragedies like the one she is enduring.
She wants other parents to benefit from what she has learned so painfully about teen dating violence.
“She tried to break up with him a couple of times and it never quite went through,” said Dunne. “It was always renegotiated, and I came to feel like he was not allowing her to break up with him.”
Dunne and Lauren’s father, Malcolm Astley, have both spent their careers in education. Although divorced, they are united in wanting to channel their grief into action. To that end, they established the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund, which supports programs on healthy relationships and teen dating violence. It can be found online at laurendunneastleymemorialfund.org.
For more than three weeks, Dunne and Astley sat in the courtroom while prosecutors and witnesses retold the horrific crime that took their daughter’s life. They were joined by such friends as Lisa Ting and Robyn Hunter, many of whom wore Lauren’s favorite coral pink in a show of support.
Dunne said Fujita never hit her daughter before July 3, 2011, when he beat and strangled Astley before slitting her throat and dumping her body in a nearby marsh. Prosecutors told jurors during the trial that Fujita was enraged over his recent breakup with his 18-year-old girlfriend.
“It’s not like she was coming home with bruises,” said Dunne, who now lives in Weston. “I think that’s what’s so shocking about this.”
That’s one lesson: In families where parents are closely involved with their children, she said, the signs of control would have to be less obvious — and not physical — to escape notice.
The young couple usually went to Fujita’s house. Dunne said she never felt like she got to know the boy that her daughter had dated for about three years.
She wishes now she had insisted on spending more time with him — another point she wants to make to parents. “My interest would be in continuing to speak to audiences about the incredibly subtle signs that we take as just teenagerness, when in fact they may be more than that,” she said.
Lauren’s father says he wants teens to learn how to better cope with heartache, especially young men who aren’t often counseled on their emotions.
In the same way parents would never put children in a car without the protection of seatbelts, they also need to give children emotional protection, such as the tools to cope with the loss of a first love, Malcolm Astley said in a separate telephone interview Friday.
“It’s one of the most painful experiences anybody goes through,” said Astley, referring to breakups. “We don’t really provide resources for kids to understand this.”
In his victim’s impact statement before sentencing on Thursday, Astley called on Fujita to use his life to atone for his crime by helping curb violence against women.
And he reached out to Fujita’s parents, embracing them in the courtroom after the conviction.
“We both lost our kids,” Astley explained.
The work Astley envisions could help countless Laurens and Nates. Because the problem of teen dating violence is so complex, the fund set up in his daughter’s name is approaching it from a number of angles.
The fund’s top priority right now is state legislation that would require as many as 10 to 20 sessions annually at every grade level to teach healthy emotions and relationships.
Another goal is to target young men and boys directly with programs on how to prevent violence between intimate partners, like “You the Man,” a play that stresses dating violence prevention and intervention. The fund is sponsoring a performance and discussion of the production, which is put on by the University of New England and will be staged on March 15, in Wayland.
Astley said the fund also hopes to support training for guidance counselors to help spot problems in teen relationships.
Dunne and Astley both said creation of the fund has given them a sense of purpose.
“The comfort is . . . that the community is standing up and saying we cannot abide, we will not abide this kind of violence and harm,” said Astley.