A North Charleston man guns down his former girlfriend before killing himself. A West Ashley man is charged with strangling a girlfriend he has beaten in the past. An elderly man is accused of stabbing his wife to death in their Goose Creek home.
These and other domestic killings played out across South Carolina in the past year or so. Though the incidents had no apparent connection, they are part of a disturbing pattern of lethal violence against women that has plagued South Carolina for more than a decade.
Further evidence of this problem arrived Wednesday, when a study ranked South Carolina first in the nation in the rate of women murdered by men, with its rate more than double the national average.
That’s according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center analyzing homicide data from 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available.
The Palmetto State’s homicide rate in this category is 2.54 women per 100,000, the report found. South Carolina has ranked in the top 10 states every year for the past 10 years, and has claimed the top spot three times during that period, experts said.
The report arrived the same day Gov. Nikki Haley signed a proclamation naming October Domestic Violence Awareness Month in South Carolina.
The ranking brought disappointment but little surprise to people like Colleen Bozard, interim executive director for South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. She said she hopes the ranking will serve as a call to action for legislative leaders and citizens alike to “realize how serious the problem is and to work to find a solution.”
Coalition board member Becky Callaham, who runs the Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter in Greenville, agreed. “To be No. 1 in the nation for deaths of women is just horrible,” she said. “We all need to be aware and realize this is something we can all do something about.”
Also disturbing is how much higher South Carolina’s rate is than the other states in the nation, said Rebecca Williams-Agee, director of prevention and education for the coalition. Alaska, the next closest state on the list, has a homicide rate for women killed by men that is nearly a half percentage point below the Palmetto State, she said.
“Not only are we first,” she said. “We are really far out there.”
A number of factors likely contribute to the ranking, from cultural attitudes about violence and women, particularly in rural areas, to a lack of resources for victims and disinterest on the part legislative leaders who haven’t made the issue a priority, domestic violence workers said. Community awareness of the problem is lacking in many areas, the courts are often seen as being lenient on domestic offenders and measures are needed to improve the scope and enforcement of protective orders, they said.
Williams-Agee said victims and their attackers need to know there are consequences for abuse. She pointed to a recent case in Spartanburg in which a man had avoided prison time for his abuse of women until he was convicted of criminal domestic violence for the seventh time. Even then, he was expected to serve no more than a year behind bars, she said.
“That is inexcusable,” she said, “and what that says to victims is that this problem is not taken seriously in the state of South Carolina.”
The policy center study covers homicides involving one female murder victim and one male offender, and uses data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unpublished Supplementary Homicide Report. In all, 1,707 women were killed nationwide by men in 2011, including 61 in South Carolina, according to Violence Policy Center Legislative Director Kristen Rand.
Of those killed nationally, 94 percent were murdered by a man they knew, and 61 percent by an intimate partner, Rand said. For South Carolina, those numbers were 91 percent and 63 percent, respectively, she said.
“The sad reality is that women are nearly always murdered by someone they know,” she said. “Already, many elected officials and community leaders are working tirelessly to reduce the toll of domestic violence. Yet despite these efforts, the numbers remain unacceptably high. We need new policies in place from local communities to the federal government to protect women from harm.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said statistics show nine women each week are shot to death by their husband or intimate partner.
“That’s nearly 500 domestic gun violence deaths each year — more than twice the number of servicewomen killed in military conflicts since the Korean War,” she said.
In South Carolina, 57 percent of victims were shot and killed with guns, compared to 51 percent nationwide, the numbers show.
Elmire Raven, executive director of My Sister’s House, the only Charleston-area domestic violence shelter for women, finds those statistics sobering. But she also knows all the resources in the world won’t help victims unless they seek that aid. Some are afraid of losing the man they love or their children. Some believe their abuser will change for the better. Others are too embarrassed to seek help, too afraid of others finding out what goes in their home.
“It’s a secret no one wants to talk about,” she said.
Raven knows firsthand how that can be. Thirty years ago, she was a police sergeant in Atlanta and dating a jealous, controlling and abusive man. It was devastating for her to tell her chief the truth after her boyfriend beat her so badly she ended up in a hospital. But she ended up finding the courage and got away from the relationship.
“I was able to move on and become a survivor,” she said.
Many people don’t think about domestic violence until it happens to them or someone close to them. That was the case with Christen Rainey, a North Charleston firefighter, who lost his mother and four siblings, ages 6 to 16, in 2006 in a burst of inexplicable violence attributed to his stepfather. They were found gunned down inside their Marson Street home.
It’s still hard for him to tell his story, to share his pain with others. But in doing so, he hopes he can inspire others to persevere through life’s challenges and get help when confronted with domestic violence.
That’s why he’s teaming up with North Charleston police this weekend to host the “Detra Rainey Stop the Violence, Save a Life” domestic violence awareness program, named after his mother. The event takes place at Centre Point Wal-Mart near Tanger Outlet on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to provide people with information and resources to tackle the problem.
“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I have been through,” he said. “And I don’t want her memory and her death to just be about sorrow. I also want her to be an inspiration to people, to help people get out of domestic violence situations and bring light to a problem a lot of people don’t want to talk about.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.