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House Speaker Bobby Harrell

COLUMBIA - House Speaker Bobby Harrell has named a special committee to find ways to help reverse the state's status as the most deadly in the nation for women at the hands of men.

"It's time to make the laws better," Harrell said. "South Carolina has made great strides, but this is an issue we have lagged behind on."

Harrell directed the committee to "have a piece of legislation ready and introduced on the first day" of the next session that begins in January.

Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, a committee member, is an advocate for stronger state laws on criminal domestic violence and has complained that efforts to improve the situation repeatedly die in the Legislature because of special interests, such as gun rights advocates.

She said she is very pleased that a five-day series on domestic violence by The Post and Courier that concluded Sunday "lit a fire under people to get something done."

"If we could just get people, particularly judges and law enforcement to view this as the serious crime it is, that would be a big step in the right direction," she said. "I think it's important to use this momentum to get something done... with this horrible crime."

Harrell proposed the committee idea this summer after The Post and Courier called him and many legislators about the General Assembly's failure during the last session to take any vote on numerous bills aimed at improving the state's domestic violence laws.

Republican Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort, chairwoman of the ad hoc committee, said it will determine "where we are and what needs to be done."

She said government is not the answer to everything, but something needs to me done in a statewide, uniform way.

The committee plans to hold a preliminary meeting Wednesday when a special legislative session is to open and should begin hearings as soon as next month.

Erickson said she wants to bring in people dealing with the problem in the state and experts from other states where effective programs have been implemented to deal with domestic violence.

The only bill that passed was one to give courts power to place protective orders on the pets of domestic violence victims to prohibit abusers from harming the animals in an effort to intimidate their victims.

The Post and Courier's domestic violence series, titled "Till death do us part," detailed how all of the other domestic violence bills died in the General Assembly, revealed that 19 people died from domestic, beatings, stabbings and shootings during the same months that the General Assembly killed the bills.

The investigation found that more than 300 women were killed in domestic abuse over the last 10 years. One dies about every 12 days. It's more than double the national rate.

The state's No. 1-in-the-nation rank for such killings is no anomaly. The Violence Policy Council of Washington, D.C., which compiles the ranking from FBI data, has placed South Carolina among the worst 10 states every one of the 15 years it has produced the list. South Carolina topped the list three times.

The series also revealed that progress in dealing with South Carolina's high rate is hampered by a cultural stew of tradition, paternalism and religious beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and women's place in the home. Mix in factors such as poverty, unemployment and isolation, and the effect can be toxic to change.

The series found that the deadly status could be reduced significantly with leadership and coordination.

For example, some laws could be changed to give prosecutors and judges a greater ability to hold abusers accountable with stiffer sentences, fines and better counseling options. A public awareness campaign could also be launched and relationship courses offered in the schools.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity to address the problem on a relatively immediate basis, at minimal expense, is to mimic effective domestic abuse programs already underway in some other states. Those efforts use a coordinated approach by government representatives, nonprofit workers and others to monitor cases and develop proactive plans to head off abuse before it becomes fatal.

One such operation is under way in Lexington County, combining the efforts of police, prosecutors, judges, victim advocates and mental health counselors. It is credited there with a dramatic reduction in instances of fatal domestic abuse.