More must be done to curb domestic violence in a state that ranks among the nation's deadliest for women, despite signs of progress in the nearly four years since South Carolina enacted sweeping reforms to combat abuse, according to a report issued Wednesday.
Since reforms passed in 2015, South Carolina has lost its ignominious distinction as the nation's deadliest state for women. But it stubbornly remains among the top-10 offenders, currently holding onto a spot as sixth-worst in the country, the S.C. Domestic Violence Advisory Committee noted in its report to the governor and General Assembly.
The 16-member panel, which includes lawmakers, prosecutors, advocates, police officers and others, noted progress across several fronts, with dozens of initiatives either completed or in the works to combat domestic violence. But more needs to be done, particularly in regard to research and education, so South Carolina can better understand and confront the problem in a systematic fashion, panel members said.
There aren't enough services for victims in many areas of the state, and not enough people are aware of services that do exist, the committee noted. There's not enough support for educational prevention efforts, and attempts to gain insight into solutions frequently are hampered by inconsistent, unreliable data, the committee stated.
"We are trying to change a culture in South Carolina, and that's not something you can just prosecute your way out of," said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, a Beaufort-area prosecutor who chairs the advisory committee. "It's something you have to change on a number of different levels, and that includes education."
Major change began in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Till death do us part” series, which revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in domestic violence in South Carolina over a decade while state lawmakers did little to stem the bloodshed. Reforms included harsher punishments and the loss of gun ownership rights for those convicted of domestic abuse. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley also appointed a statewide task force to tackle ways to get at the attitudes, secrecy and culture that perpetuate abuse.
A number of those changes have made a difference, including millions spent on hiring dozens of prosecutors to make sure domestic violence cases are being properly handled in lower-level courts, authorities said. Previously, police officers often handled those cases in municipal and magistrate courts across the state, going up against seasoned defense lawyers. With the change, only five or fewer municipalities still allow law enforcement officers to prosecute domestic violence cases at that level, the committee's report noted.
"Asking our law enforcement officers to come in and go up against paid legal counsel was way too much to ask of them, and our victims were paying the price," Rep. Shannon Erickson, a Beaufort Republican who serves on the advisory committee, said. "The survivors of these things would tell us stories about their cases being dropped through the cracks, and it wasn't any one person's fault. We needed to overhaul the system."
To make further progress on the problem, the advisory recommends the state:
- Expand educational efforts about domestic violence prevention in the schools and communities. The panel wants to tackle domestic violence like a public health crisis, with a multi-pronged effort that helps people better understand potential risks and protections, with an eye toward early intervention.
- Partner with criminologists from the University of South Carolina to conduct an in-depth victimization study to help policymakers and others understand more about the particulars of domestic violence homicides, recidivism rates, the effectiveness of treatment programs and other factors. The panel plans to ask the Legislature for $487,000 to fund that research, Stone said.
- Expand definitions in the state's domestic violence law to provide protections to victims of dating violence as well. The current law limits those protections to "household members," defined as current or former spouses, people who have a child in common and people who live together or once did. Victims who are dating but don't live with their abusers can't get a protective order under the domestic violence law or seek criminal charges under that law, the report stated.
South Carolina has been among the top-10 deadliest states for women for the entire two decades that the Violence Policy Center has been compiling its annual study, “When Men Murder Women.” South Carolina has topped that list four times during that period, most recently in 2015.
The latest rankings are based on 2016 data, the latest year for which information is available, and reflect a period in which 48 women were killed in South Carolina.