Here in SC, domestic violence statistics are alarming. Domestic violence occurs in families of all income levels, education levels and races. It happens in dating relationships, in marriages and in heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA), Sistercare and SC Legal Services are Foundation grantees working to change the frightening domestic violence statistics.
According to the SC Attorney General’s office, more than 36,000 victims report a domestic violence incident to law enforcement each year, but this number is underreported as many others do not call the police and choose to stay with their abusers. “People can’t understand why victims don’t ‘just leave’,” states Kristin Dubrowski, Executive Director of CODA. “Most murders related to domestic violence happen after the victim has left [the abuser], so fear and safety are major concerns.”
Religion is another important factor. “I have had clients tell me they did not leave sooner because they were taught to stay in their marriages, regardless of what their spouses were doing to them,” says Leslie Fisk, Family Law Unit Head/Staff Attorney with South Carolina Legal Services.
Although people question why domestic violence victims stay, there are more important questions to ask. “We should ask why the perpetrator isn’t being held accountable or what more we can do to help provide victims with safety and the resources needed to start over,” says Dubrowski.
Domestic violence laws in South Carolina are weak, diminish the seriousness of domestic violence and are not enforced in a consistent manner. An in-depth investigation by the Post and Courier in 2014 found that police and court resources vary greatly around the state, making it harder to respond to violence and prosecute the abusers. The investigation also found that abusers are released from jail quickly because of low bail requirements, and even when victims seek orders of protection, the orders often lack enforcement.
The laws also only protect particular victims. “Orders of Protection and Domestic Violence laws in South Carolina only apply to ‘household members,’ excluding dating couples who have never lived or had a child together,” says Fisk.
South Carolina is making improvements. In 2015, Governor Nikki Haley signed the Domestic Violence Reform Act into law. Highlights of the act include putting abusers behind bars based on both the number of times they are charged with domestic violence and the severity of the crime; allowing judges to issue permanent orders of protection; setting bond based on the danger to the “individual” as well as the community; and creating a Domestic Violence Advisory Committee to study domestic violence cases.
Although the new act makes the existing laws stronger, there is still room for improvement, and that improvement can start with lawyers.
Lawyers can help change the statistics by acknowledging the severity of domestic violence in the state and by familiarizing themselves with the changes made to domestic violence laws in 2015. Additionally, lawyers who practice criminal and family law can learn more about the dynamics and tactics abusers use to control their partners and where to refer a client they suspect is dealing with domestic abuse. “We believe education is extremely important when it comes to understanding the complexities in domestic violence cases,” says Karen Petit, volunteer with Sistercare.
Finally, lawyers can help by volunteering at and supporting local domestic violence organizations. SC Bar Foundation grantees Citizens Against Domestic Abuse, Sistercare and SC Legal Services are some of the organizations around the state that aid victims. Join us in helping domestic violence victims fight their attackers. Donate to the SC Bar Foundation.