South Carolina tops the nation for domestic violence deaths — and resources are at risk

South Carolina News

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Domestic violence resource organizations in South Carolina and nationwide are bracing for a massive cut in their funding. 

“You may have a shelter, but you may not have people working in the shelter,” said Sara Barber, the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

More than 6,000 local organizations nationwide depend on funds from the Victims of Crime Act to function. Funded by penalties and fines from white collar crimes, the pool has been drying up over the last few years as prosecution strategies have changed and more deferred and non-prosecution agreements are pursued. Those agreements aren’t technically criminal convictions, so those fees do not go into the fund.

The federal HEROES Act would amend the VOCA to have penalties and fines from those agreements enter the Crime Victims Fund. The act has been passed by the House of Representatives and remains in the Senate. 

Without the change, Barber said organizations are facing a 40% reduction in federal funds, putting services at jeopardy.

 In 2019, South Carolina was the sixth-worst state for its rates of women murdered by men, with a domestic violence homicide rate 1.5 times the national average. The state has topped the list four times between 2000 and 2015, and has been in the top 10 worst states for domestic violence for almost two decades.

In South Carolina, 41.5% of women and 17.4% of men will experience intimate partner physical or sexual violence, or stalking within their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

A bleak picture

In South Carolina, 1.88 females were murdered by males per 100,000 people in 2016, a rate that, at times, has been double the national average, according to a 2019 report from the state Domestic Violence Advisory Committee.

Of the 52 victims of intimate partner violence in South Carolina in 2017, 27 were female and killed by their male partners, according to the report, which faces a two-year delay in retrieving information. Of the 25 male victims, 52% were killed by a male suspect, and 52% were killed by a former intimate partner. Of the men killed, 22% were killed by a family member or other person they knew, and 30% had an unknown relationship with their killer.

More than 65.4% of the homicides were committed with a firearm. 

Of the 42 people murdered by a household member in 2019, 85.7% were women, according to the most recent South Carolina Domestic Violence Fatality Report. Among those deaths were a woman in Florence County, a woman in Marion County and a woman in Marlboro County.

Barber attributes South Carolina’s high rates to views around women’s equality. Economic distress, she said, also contributes to violence levels, and high mortality rates can be attributed to access to firearms.

The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Barber said cultural changes happen faster on an individual level as people learn to support survivors and become a trusted person they can go to. Leaving an abusive situation is a long process, she said, which might include a survivor approaching someone they trust several times before they leave a relationship.

Change through prevention

Domestic violence is a complex issue that can’t be completely solved through legislation, according to Ellen Hamilton, the executive director of the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault.

“We have made enormous strides in respect to laws and policies, but we still have a significant violence problem,” she said. 

Hamilton places an emphasis on prevention, which includes intervening with offenders and helping those who are at risk of becoming one. A lot of offenders have experienced trauma themselves, she said, which often includes being abused as a child and watching violence unfold in their homes.

“His belief system may be rooted in what he learned when he was growing up and saw the men in his life treat women terribly,” Hamilton said. 

Interventions including teaching communication skills and how to disagree with others without being violent. Those actions, she said, prevent domestic violence instead of being reactionary.

“We don’t have a rapid response system so you can intervene early,” Hamilton said. “What we know how to do is arrest people.”

The efforts are about changing how the local culture approaches the issue. Hamilton said women are told to stick it out, while men don’t talk to each other when they’re hurting and scared. For men, anger and frustration are acceptable expressions. Fear, she said, usually isn’t.

“They don’t want to be made fun of, they don’t want to be belittled,” Hamilton said. “But women are afraid of dying. They are afraid of being hurt or killed.”

The strategy is to create the same impact as smoking cessation messages, which helped to shift the public perception of tobacco.

“That is what we try to work on, and that is huge because you have to get all sorts of social institutions to go along with that,” Hamilton said.

Other efforts include working to reduce risk by talking to schools about healthy relationships and teaching self defense classes. She’d also like to see churches get involved by opening up discussions around domestic violence.

Hamilton, who has worked in the Pee Dee area for 35 years, has seen discussions evolve.

“I think what I have seen is a willingness for people to say, ‘This is a problem we have to pay attention to,’” she said. 

She said that shift needs to not only be about making it a community problem instead of one for only law enforcement and courts to handle, but also about modifying the discussions around offenders. Hamilton said punishments alone don’t change behaviors.

“You have to learn a different way, and the culture and the community has to say that we value that,” she said.

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