The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Lashonda Vereen never expected her partner to attack her.
Then, she ended up in the hospital.
“After that first incident, I actually went back home hoping I could work things out, and that everything could possibly get better if I stayed and helped him through his drug issues,” she said.
Once she discovered he was abusing drugs, he felt more comfortable using in front of her. Then, she ended up in the hospital. Again.
“When you are in a domestic situation, the first thing you try to do is justify for that person, justify that behavior, and what did I do to cause them to act that way,” she said.
After the third time, she left for good. But she didn’t know where to go. She’d withdrawn from her support systems, and didn’t have a job.
She was directed to the Family Justice Center in Georgetown County and later pressed charges against her abuser, who was convicted. Now, she’s thriving and studying to become a nurse.
“I feel free,” she said.
Vereen’s story could have easily ended differently. At least 24 women and 15 men were killed due to domestic violence in the state last year, according to the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
It’s a situation that hasn’t been improving much in the state, which has consistently ranked among the worst in the nation for both its rate of domestic violence and for how often women are killed by men.
There are about 32,563 cases of intimate partner violence in South Carolina each year, according to data from the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). About 42.3% of South Carolina women and 29.2% of men will be physically or sexually abused, or stalked, by a romantic partner within their lifetimes.
It’s a cultural issue that doesn’t have a simple solution, according to advocates, but steps could be made now to help save lives in the future.
A complex problem
The number of domestic violence cases investigated by police each year is only a fraction of the state’s reality.
“Domestic violence is a huge and often hidden problem in our state, even though we know the reporting rates are low,” said Sara Barber, the executive director of SCCADVASA.”We are looking at much bigger issues and numbers than we know.”
The people who are reporting those cases, she said, aren’t the same ones attending SCCADVASA programs.
Barber cites 2015 as a pivotal year for the state’s response, following a multi-part series on domestic violence published by The Post & Courier in Charleston. Those changes included a state task force appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley and the state General Assembly enhanced penalties for abusers, but Barber said there is still a long way to go to improve the situation.
News13 reached out of Haley for a comment about those 2015 efforts. Haley declined an interview, citing that she is not the sitting governor.
Laws are important, Barber said, because they show what society says is acceptable. However, those laws need to be implemented consistently, from 911 officers, to police officers to attorneys.
The cultural aspect around accepting domestic violence, or seeing it as a couple’s personal problem, needs to change.
Barber said she’s often asked why those who are abused don’t leave their relationships.
Those survivors have often been isolated, may not be allowed to work and are caring for children.
“You are being asked to leave everything behind, and you are asked to do that while you are terrified of somebody that you love,” Barber said. “It is an enormous ask that we make of survivors as a community.”
What people forget, she said, is that the couple is still in love.
“Abuse doesn’t happen until you are emotionally attached to that person, you have kids with that person,” Barber said.
It can also be a long time between incidents.
Leaving a marriage can spur a custody battle that’s used as leverage by the abuser to keep control.
“Any divorce with domestic violence involved is going to be a contested divorce,” Barber said.
For women who come from wealthy, well-known households, it’s even harder to leave.
“What happens when women make an accusation against a very prominent person in the community, they are met with disbelief, and often disbelief by other women,” Barber said.
Hurdles for men, immigrant families, members of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities are even higher.
The survivors often start their journey the same way. They walk into the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, then state that they’re not sure they’re in the right place.
“It takes strength and courage to even walk through our door,” said Hope Hanna, the coalition’s domestic violence and crisis line coordinator.
The crisis line receives about 10 to 25 calls a day. Sometimes the survivors are ready to leave. Sometimes they just want a little more information. The calls remain confidential unless the caller states they are going to hurt themselves or someone else.
The coalition offers counseling to build self-esteem, can provide a self house and partners with job skill training programs, the housing authority and community resources. If an arrest has been made in the case, Hanna reaches out to victim advocates to help guide them through the court system.
The main thing, Hanna said, is that they listen.
“We are not going to force them to do anything,” she said. “We are there to support that victim.”
She remembers a call where an abuser had broken a woman’s bones. The woman came from a high socioeconomic class, and her abuser was at the hospital, keeping an eye on what she was saying. Hanna said that nurses are great at contacting the crisis line if they suspect an injury was caused by domestic violence, and that the coalition’s volunteers are able to discreetly come in to help.
It usually takes several times until a survivor leaves the relationship for good.
“The victim knows the other person way better than we do…and a lot of times they are beaten, not physically, but emotionally, they’re drained,” Hanna said. “And they’re still in love, and I always tell them, ‘You don’t fall out of love overnight.’ A black eye doesn’t make the love go away.”
Gaining a shelter
After years of having to travel to Georgetown County for services, Horry County is finally getting a domestic violence shelter of its own.
“That is going to be a huge resource for us, and for our community, and for our clients,” said Kim Parsons, the executive director of the Family Justice Center.
The Family Justice Center aids domestic violence survivors in Horry and Georgetown counties. However, about 70% of the people it helps at the existing shelter in Georgetown County are from Horry County.
That shelter only has nine beds. The Horry County one will have at least double that amount.
Asking survivors to travel to Georgetown County can lead to long commutes for those who have jobs, and means they’ll likely have to pull their children out of their school. That’s a gigantic hurdle, Parsons said, and is a reason why a lot of survivors won’t come in.
The agency helped about 1,200 people last year, and expects to match those numbers this year. That’s believed to be only a small percentage of the people who are being abused in the area.
When survivors come in, they’re told to turn off tracking on their phones and not contact people who might tell their abuser where they are. While there’s some agencies that are moving away from a shelter model and placing people in hotels and communities, Parsons said that emergency, undisclosed shelters are still crucial.
“I think there is still times that you need that, especially if someone is actively looking for you,” she said.
The Family Justice Center’s first contact with a survivor usually happens after they start going through the court system.
Most survivors end up asking for charges to be dropped. That can be because it’s intimidating to face an abuser in court, that the abuser is their financial provider and father of their children, or because the defendant is contacting them and demanding they drop the charges. The abuser also might be able to afford an attorney to fight an order of protection case, while the survivor might not.
Parsons said abuse starts subtly. An offender might text demanding to know where their partner is at all times, then slowly become violent. Ten years later, those who are abused don’t know how the relationship got to that point.
Some of the people who come to the center have been in abusive relationships for three to four decades.
“These women and men, the perpetrators, are really good at what they do,” Parsons said. “They know how to manipulate. They know how to get what they want.”
The abuse isn’t always physical. It can also include emotional, sexual and financial abuse.
“What we found out was most of the clients will say the emotional abuse is worse than the physical abuse,” she said. When clients walk into the center, Parsons said they usually don’t think they’ve been abused. Then they’re given a power and control list, and are surprised by what they’ve checked off.
The center offers counseling and case management services, which don’t require a survivor to physically come in to access.
While the pandemic has helped the center learn how to virtually do its services, she said that there is still a gap in how the organization can reach men.
“I can probably count on one hand in a year how many males reach out to us, and they are involved in some pretty abusive situations,” said Parsons, who also added that the center should find ways to help them overcome the stigma of being a male who was abused.
And while the Horry County shelter will fill a critical need for people escaping domestic violence, Parsons said it will also fill a crucial gap – providing a space for pets. She said that many people are afraid to leave a relationship because they’re afraid that an abuser might hurt their pet. That animal, she said, can also provide emotional support while a survivor navigates their new life.
‘Old type of love’
Mary Jenerett was warned that her abuser had hurt others in the past. They told her to be careful, but she thought that he’d change.
“The first thing we say is in our heads is that it won’t happen to us, but we are basically putting ourselves in that line of fire,” she said.
Her abuser ended up hitting and choking her. He also kidnapped her children.
“I did fear for my life a couple of times, to the point I remember asking, ‘God, give me a way out,’” she said. “And I got a way out, and I went back, and I asked again, ‘Give me a way out,’ and I got a way out, and I went back.”
Her abuser said that if she left, he’d have nowhere to go. Having children also made leaving harder. Little by little, she started putting clothes aside. Then, one day, she took her kids, and left for good.
“People get hurt, but you have to be tired, you have to be fed up, and I was,” Jenerett said.
The beginning of the relationship, she said, was “great.” Then he’d raise his voice, or hit her and pass it off as being playful. He’d wait until the children were at school or with family to attack her, and then started abusing her when they were around.
She never called police or pressed charges because she was afraid that her children would be taken away.
Her church and family helped her get through leaving. After being divorced for 14 years, she’s tired of being silent about what happened.
“Let them judge, let them talk, because we need to be heard,” she said.
She urges survivors not to hide or cover up the abuse. She wants places for survivors to escape to, and said that online school could make leaving easier.
Speaking out, she said, will help change the culture around domestic violence.
“We are not settling for that anymore,” Jenerett said. “I want that old type of love, but I don’t want that old type of love with the abuse that’s attached to it.”
Changing laws, finding solutions
A woman is five times more likely to be killed by a partner if a gun is in the home, and intimate partner homicide is 11 times greater than in comparable countries, according to data from SCCADVASA.
Federal law states that convicted abusers are not able to purchase new guns. However, under state law, there is no mechanism to ensure that offenders don’t own firearms, and those convicted of a lower-level domestic violence offense can still keep theirs.
In South Carolina, more than 79% of those who died in domestic violence incidents were killed with a gun, according to SCCADVASA. Accountability towards firearms, Barber said, is desperately needed.
“I think oftentimes we prioritize the Second Amendment rights over the safety of people who live in homes where someone has already shown that they are willing to use violence,” she said.
Mass shooters, she said, often have roots in domestic violence.
“It spills over into everything,” she said. “It is not a contained issue that we can just put to one side.”
Changes that can reduce fatalities include conducting fatality risk assessments for survivors so that they can see their risk of being killed.
“What we do know is that women never overestimate the danger they’re in,” Barber said.
A crisis in affordable housing, health care and child care need to be addressed to make it possible for those who have been abused to leave.
Laws increasing penalties have been useful, she said, but there’s a long way to go on implementing them.
“I think we are slowly and steadily building awareness of domestic violence of the issue, and slowly building awareness that everyone has a part to play in that,” Barber said.
She’d like to see laws created that make certain information about survivors confidential. She also wants to see South Carolina have better gun safety provisions – and act on them.
Domestic violence costs the nation about $8 billion a year due to lost work, lower productivity, medical costs, judicial costs and incarceration. Prevention, Barber said, is much, much cheaper. It’s going to cost at first, she said, but will save money long term.
“If we want to see solutions, then we need to invest in those,” she said.
South Carolina Rep. William Bailey, R-Horry County, believes a piece of legislation he’s proposed might help. His bill would assign offenders an ankle monitor as part of their bail. That monitor, under his vision, would immediately alert victims if the offender is near them.
The bill was proposed again this year, but did not make it out of committee.
“It is something that is very affordable, and it would be life-changing to people who have lived in fear for years,” Bailey said.
After proposing it again this year, he finally got a hearing – after sticking a note with the bill number on it on Rep. Peter McCoy whenever he saw him.
“I think the General Assembly wants to do something,” Bailey said. “I think it is one of those deals where sometimes we get stuck looking at the old solutions and thinking if we just give you more of the old solution, it is going to work.”
He wants to see the monitors enforced on a first offense, before the accused becomes a stalker. That warning system, he said, would be similar to house arrest, and gives victims an additional layer of security to use along with an order of protection.
He thinks the bill will need to be presented as adding another option for judges setting bail in order to give it a better chance of being passed in the General Assembly. If passed, he sees judges using the monitor more as they become more familiar with the technology.
Similar bills are being considered by at least 10 other states.
Bailey, who is a retired law enforcement officer, said he wants to do anything that can use technology to help improve the lives of those who have been abused.
One case in particular sticks with him. He responded to a domestic violence call for a woman who was abused. A few days later, he got the report that her body was found in a dumpster.
“If one time is too many, I’ve seen it too many times,” he said.
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Crisis line: 800-273-1820