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Dating violence – Lessons from a life reconstructed
By LESLIE A. PANFIL
Johanna Orozco, 22, stood unassumingly in front of the high school performing arts stage as students filed in and took their seats. The story she shared transcended the sensational headlines: “Teen shot in the face by boyfriend.” Her story is of a life shattered and reconstructed.
She had known Juan Ruiz since second grade. “At that age, boys had cooties,” Orozco explained. So, it wasn’t until she was 15 and a friend convinced her to come along to her boyfriend’s house that she and Ruiz’s paths crossed again. Her friend was dating Ruiz’s stepbrother. “I was so shy. He asked for my phone number. But, I don’t roll that way. I said he could give me his phone number and I would call him if I was interested. I let a month go by and then I called.”
Their budding romance was interrupted when Orozco’s mother uprooted the family and moved them to Tennessee. “You see, both Juan and I had fathers who were abusive to our mothers,” said Orozco. “It is one of the many things we had in common.”
“My father begged my mother to take him back. He promised to never hurt her again. And, he didn’t. We were a happy family again.” Then, Orozco’s mother died of kidney failure. Only 11 days later, her father died in a car accident and Johanna and her brother Kevin were sent back to Cleveland to live with their grandparents paving the way for her to be reunited with Ruiz.
Orozco painted a picture of young love that every teen could relate to. They had a strong physical attraction, a solid friendship and so much in common. “My first warning sign was Juan’s jealousy. At first, I thought it was cute; proof that he cared about me,” said Orozco. But, his jealousy would soon turn into something dark and ugly, sweeping away Johanna’s confident and outgoing nature with it.
“He wanted to know where I was at all times. He told me what to wear, where I could go and who I could see,” describes Orozco. “He would call me horrible names and then he began to hit me.”
The cycle of abuse, remorse and forgiveness modeled by her parents was playing out between her and Juan. “Sometimes he threatened to kill me. Other times he threatened to kill himself or a person I cared about,” Orozco said. “Other times he just beat me until I said I would get back together with him.”
“I went from someone who loved attention. The kind of girl who would sit in the front row, to a feeling I was worthless.” After a two year downward spiral, Johanna broke off her relationship with Juan for good.
“Juan broke into my home and raped me at knife point,” said Orozco. “The next day I told my friends and they told a teacher. The teacher told an administrator who contacted the police.”
At the time of Ruiz’s arrest, protective orders could not be placed on minors. He continued to stalk and harass Orozco and on March 5, 2007 while under house arrest, he shot Orozco in the face with a shotgun as she sat in her grandparent’s SUV.
“I remember thinking I want to live.” But, Orozco would have to live with years of reconstructive surgery, threats from Ruiz’s friends and a trial that would put Ruiz behind bars for 17 years.
Since that fateful day Orozco has dedicated her life to spreading the word about dating violence. As a Teen Educator with the Domestic Violence Center of Cleveland, Orozco speaks before groups of teens, in the hopes that her story will motivate not only victims to speak up, but their friends on their behalf.
“To this day, my best friend will cry and say she is sorry for not speaking up. You don’t want to carry that kind of guilt around.”
Orozco has also been instrumental in helping to pass 2 Ohio laws, House Bill 19, which requires teachers in health classes to educate students in grades 7 to 12 about teen dating violence; and House Bill 10, which allows teens ages 13 to 18 to get protection orders against teens, something she was not able to get.