For the first time, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office will dedicate detectives to domestic violence and abuse against children and elderly victims, allowing them to focus solely on those investigations and prevention efforts.
Domestic violence and abuse cases currently fall into the laps of 12 general investigators, and Sheriff Duane Lewis said a full caseload has often prevented detectives from specializing in those issues.
Within the next month, the agency plans to add two grant-funded detectives to its roster. One of the new hires will be assigned to domestic violence cases. The other will tackle child and elder abuse, which includes incidents of sexual abuse.
Federal grants administered by the S.C. Department of Public Safety, each for $98,112, will allow the agency to hire, train and provide equipment for the investigators.
"These two positions are what we call gaps in services because we don’t have someone that's professionally trained for these specific crimes," Lewis said. "And we need that."
Lewis said his deputies respond to reports of domestic violence more than any other type of call. In 2016, Berkeley County tied with Richland County for the most domestic violence homicides with four killings, according to the most recent annual report by the S.C. Attorney General's Office.
Overall, South Carolina is the fifth deadliest state for women killed by men, according to an annual study by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., which most recently analyzed deaths from 2015.
Butch Kennedy, director of the nonprofit Project Unity USA’s Charleston branch and founder of Real Men Against Domestic Violence/Abuse, or REALMAD, applauded the Sheriff's Office for dedicating an investigator to the issue.
"It sounds to me like Berkeley County is actually taking domestic violence seriously," he said. "When we go all over the state and talk to people about domestic violence, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot if we're not in lockstep in this fight."
The grant money also comes at a time when instances of child abuse and neglect are on the rise in Berkeley County. Founded investigations of abuse and neglect increased by 42 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report. There were 351 cases in 2016.
Lewis said one of his hopes is that the detectives will improve communication with the public as they guide victims and families through the criminal justice system and connect them with services. The additional positions are also important, he said, as the county's population continues to soar.
The Justice Assistance Grant Program will fund the positions for three years. After that, Lewis said he will likely ask County Council to include the positions in the budget.