COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW) — In 2019, South Carolina was the sixth-worst state for its rates of women murdered by men, with a domestic violence homicide rate 1.5 times the national average.
It wasn’t a one-year fluke. South Carolina has topped the list four times between 2000 and 2015, and has been in the top 10 worst states for domestic violence for almost two decades.
It’s a designation state lawmakers and resource groups say needs to change.
“In South Carolina, we are one of the worst states for domestic violence, and I don’t think that is a characteristic that we want to be proud to have, and as a member of the general assembly, I think it is important and prudent for us to make laws to protect those victims of domestic violence,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richmond County.
Bernstein is one of two sponsors of H. 3210, a prefiled bill that would amend the Protection from Domestic Abuse Act to add people who are currently or formerly have dated under laws that would allow them to access domestic violence resources and protective orders.
The bill is one of a handful that have been prefiled by state lawmakers addressing domestic violence, potentially creating laws that advocates say are desperately needed.
South Carolina had a homicide rate of 1.88 females murdered by males per 100,000 people in 2016, a rate that, at times, has been double the national average, according to a 2019 report from the state Domestic Violence Advisory Committee.
The committee’s 2019 report outlines several suggestions to the state, ranging from expanding domestic violence prevention education in schools, improving data collection, creating consistent responses for law enforcement, adding address confidentiality for survivors and expanding the definition of “household member” to include dating violence, like in Bernstein’s bill. The definition currently only includes current or former spouses, heterosexual couples currently living together or who have lived together and couples who share a child.
Legislation to change that definition is crucial to giving survivors the resources they need, according to Sara Barber, the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“You don’t have to be married to have those dynamics to become domestic violence,” Barber said.
The coalition, which is made up of 22 organizations throughout the state, works on advocacy, collaboration, prevention and education. It is pushing for laws that would create confidentiality for survivors when they’re communicating with local programs, make law enforcement policies more consistent and trauma-informed and to create more dating violence education.
Several domestic violence bills have been prefiled in the state legislature for its upcoming session. These include several suggestions mentioned in the state report, and include ones that would create an address confidentiality program, one that would require nonprofit victim assistance organizations to protect the confidentiality and privacy of its clients and prohibit its employees and volunteers from testifying about communications made by a client, and one that allows domestic violence survivors to request a new lock on their residence and terminate their rental agreements.
Among those bills is H. 3417, which would allow a court to place an electronic monitoring device on someone charged with domestic violence, which would then alert the victim of the accused’s location.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. William Bailey, R-Horry County, who wants to reduce the amount of domestic violence in the state. Bailey, who spent time in law enforcement, said that technology like gps tracking can help ease a survivor’s anxiety.
“It is cheap, it is inexpensive, it is something the court could do very easily and provide that extra level of security for someone, and they could pretty much carry on with their life and have that backup system to tell them if they are in jeopardy and some sort of threat situation,” he said.
The bill got into subcommittee last year, where it faced questions about how it would be deployed and funded. Bailey believes it would have passed if the legislature had more time to consider it, and is confident that it might see a vote this year.
As for Bernstein’s bill amending the definition of a “household member,” she hopes it passes without issue. However, she said that she’s concerned it may face a hurdle with some conservative lawmakers because the bill protects those in same-sex relationships.
“In the end, this is a win-win for domestic violence victims and same-sex couples, and if the more conservative members of the general assembly want to focus on that, it will be a shame, honestly, because this is good legislation and hopefully people will see it that way,” she said.
As a member of the children’s committee, Bernstein decided to sponsor the bill after attending hearings across the state that addressed domestic violence in teens, whose dating relationships are not covered under the current definition. She said it’s the legislature’s responsibility to enact laws that aim to reduce domestic violence.
The law, she said, would also align with a Supreme Court ruling.
“The main reason is just to codify what the Supreme Court has already done,” she said.