Domestic violence task force stymied by unreliable stats

A silent witness ceremony on domestic violence, for which the states collects data considered problematic.

COLUMBIA — Key statistics used by law enforcement and advocates to combat domestic violence in South Carolina are unreliable and possibly highly inaccurate, according to initials finding by a task force formed by Gov. Nikki Haley.

The problems — identified in the past but never corrected — could mean that South Carolina’s domestic violence rates are even worse than reported and solutions more elusive. For the past 17 years, South Carolina has consistently been among the worst states in domestic violence, topping the list three times.

“We know we’re a state with a terrible problem,” said Sara Barber, an advocate who serves on the task force. “The task force is going to show we’re not sure how great the problem is. If we don’t know what the true rates of domestic violence are, potentially they’re much, much worse.”

The task force’s initial report questioning the reliability of the domestic violence statistics is expected this week. Solutions are expected to come in a later report.

Large reports chock-full of data on domestic violence compiled by the Department of Public Safety are meant to give law enforcement and others insight into the endemic domestic violence problem.

But when a subset of the large task force assembled by Haley in response to The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on domestic violence, “Till Death Do Us Part,” began to dive into the numbers, the problems were discovered anew.

The numbers didn’t add up to a subcommittee chaired by Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. Counties with soaring rates of domestic violence are adjacent to others that have little domestic violence but similar populations, the numbers showed. They also showed that alcohol was involved in few of the cases — another metric experts say is likely not the case. Also, counties where there are demographics more prone to domestic violence sometimes had few cases of domestic violence, which all raise red flags.

Task force leaders don’t yet know why the data is inaccurate and have sent out in-depth surveys to all local law enforcement agencies, among others, to try to get answers.

“If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it,” Stirling said. “I’m not sure we’ve done a good job measuring domestic violence in the state.”

Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council and a member of the task force, said she has long pushed for better data so solutions to the problem could become evident. For one, the way crimes are reported to the state cannot be traced back through the system.

That means Hudson and other advocates can’t track whether abusers have had past convictions, how prosecutors handle the crimes or what treatment programs work, among establishing other trends. It also makes it more difficult for local officials to apply for federal grants for a new shelter or a domestic violence program.

“We don’t know whether we’re accomplishing anything,” she said.

Hudson said a task force 15 years ago also identified the problem and called for fixes. They never happened.

She said she hopes leaders are serious about addressing the problems they find this time around. “I worry about any kind of task force,” she said.

Rob McManus, who compiled the domestic violence report from 1992 through 2014, said issues with the data have long been known. He said that state police do their best to collect the data but that an issue looked at as paperwork gets pushed down the priority list when compared to fighting and investigating crime.

“We can’t look at it systematically, and our understanding of domestic violence is limited as a result,” he said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.