I’d always known I wanted a family, and when I was only twenty, life gave me the opportunity and my amazing daughter Jennifer Ann was born. When Jennifer was younger, I did everything I could to keep her safe, to teach her what I knew, and to love her. Jen and I were close, but I didn’t get the opportunity to get to know the boy that she dated for a little bit as a sophomore in high school. The last time Jen and I spoke was Valentine’s Day during her senior year of high school. She told me she was going to be looking at a car with this boy, her ex-boyfriend, the next day. That was something about Jen – she was a helper. This person took advantage of her helping nature. After looking at the car together, they took a shortcut through the woods, where he ended up killing her with a shotgun. All of the dreams she had shared with me would not be realized – they were now simply memories for me to hold.
The warning signs weren’t obvious at the time, but knowing what I know now, and looking back on some of my conversations with Jen, I believe this person was manipulative and felt the need to have power and control over her. I wish I’d had the knowledge then that I have now about teen dating violence, and I could have had a conversation with Jen about that. Most people don’t even realize how serious of an issue it is. I didn’t until this happened.
After Jen was killed, I lost my identity. I was Jen’s Dad. We don’t have a word for someone that was a person’s parent and stopped being one, and it’s sometimes difficult to feel a part of society because of that. My status as a person changed. The pain I felt was unbearable, and I needed something to do. Two weeks before her high school graduation we found out her school wasn’t going to issue Jennifer Ann a diploma. So I got to work on Jennifer’s Law – which states that if your child dies during their junior or senior year of high school, but was on track to finish school, you will be issued their diploma. Within a year, Jennifer’s Law was passed in Texas.
I never wanted another family to experience this senseless devastation. Through my pain, Jennifer Ann’s Group was born. I created a website to educate young people about the prevalence of teen dating violence, how to identify these relationships, and how to extricate themselves safely from such relationships.
Working with what is now the National Dating Abuse Helpline, Jennifer Ann’s Group created cards people could carry with the “10 Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship” on one side, and on the reverse, “How to Create a Safety Plan.” We now give out bookmarks to youth with this information on one side (as well as a ruler, math formulas, commonly misspelled words, etc. on the other). We have distributed over half a million cards and bookmarks all over the world to young people.
We wanted to increase awareness even more, and I wanted to use my technical background, so I decided to create video games to prevent violence. We started with games that educate young people about teen dating violence, and have expanded by creating several more games on different topics like resilience, consent, and healthy relationships. Our goal is to meet young people where they are, and engage them in critical thinking at a young age and to engage with facts and statistics, so hopefully they’ll feel empowered to make good choices, do their own research to confirm things if someone says something questionable, and just thrive.
Intimate partner violence is widespread and violence is ubiquitous, and I think our culture needs to change a lot to move away from this violence. I believe that instead of spending more time building prisons and dealing with the after effects of violence, we should focus more on preventing it, by heading off people who are going down a bad path and may potentially become perpetrators, and by engaging the people who may unwittingly become the victims of abuse. Both of these groups can be reached through our video games. The audience for our games is 11-23 years old, with the majority of our games are geared towards middle and high schoolers. Our games are on our website and are free, and we have been able to successfully offer them directly in classrooms, and we now have lesson plans and slide decks available for educators in schools to use with our games. I hope more schools will offer these programs in the future; we want to reach and help as many young people as possible.
It’s difficult for people to understand what we – as survivors – have gone through if you haven’t ever experienced gun violence. People and problems are complex. Gun violence survivors and perpetrators are not a monolith and their experiences are unique. I want people to have compassion and empathy for those of us that have experienced it.
If and when you unfortunately experience gun violence, I think it’s really important to feel like you have some control. Find whatever it is that helps you do that. For me, it started with a website for Jennifer Ann’s Group. I had no control over what happened to my daughter, but I had some control over what happened after that. All of my life satisfaction came from putting her name out there, doing things in Jennifer Ann’s name and memory, and trying to make a difference for other people. It’s no substitute for the real thing – but I still feel the need to be a dad to Jen, somehow.