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Unsafe at home: A series looks at domestic violence

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Jennifer looked nervous as she waited for a taxi on a recent afternoon. When it arrived, it would take her and her young daughter, Molly, away from Georgetown County and the life they had made here.

Jennifer, who is in her mid 30s, was fleeing an abuser, a man she had already found the strength to split from, but who continued to track her down after she left, threatening her safety and that of those around her.

“He knew my job, my family, my friends, the places I go,” she said. She told friends and neighbors not to give him any information about her. She changed her routine, shopping in different stores and going to different gas stations, and she closed her accounts on social networking sites to keep him from learning anything about her whereabouts that way.

So he started going to see her at work, causing trouble for her there, and very nearly getting her fired from her job on the Waccamaw Neck, where she worked in the hospitality industry.

“I didn’t want anybody to know what was going on, but I had to tell them in order to keep my job,” Jennifer said. She turned to the Family Justice Center in Georgetown for help and they assisted her in getting out of the county and starting a new life.

“I’ve been in a safe house and a shelter,” she said. At first she stayed with family. “Georgetown’s just not that big; it’s too easy to be seen, so I’m here today trying to leave altogether. I don’t know what else to do.”

Jennifer is one of more than 36,000 victims who report a domestic violence incident to law enforcement agencies in South Carolina every year, according to information from the state attorney general’s office. Many others — estimated to be about 75 percent – go unreported.

Georgetown County ranks sixth in the state for the most cases reported, with more than 500 last year.

South Carolina ranks ninth in the nation for homicides caused by domestic violence. Over the last 13 years, an average of 33 women have been killed annually in the state by their intimate partner. As of September, 23 had been murdered this year, a statistic Joan Meacham, interim executive director at the Family Justice Center, describes as “chilling.”

Statistics from the center show that, nationwide, battering is the single largest cause of injury to women, affecting more women in the U.S. than automobile accidents, mugging and rape combined. It’s so prevalent that nearly everyone has been affected by it in some way, Meacham said. If they haven’t experienced it themselves, they have a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker who has.

Domestic violence affects every race, creed and social stratus. “There is no status quo. It’s across the board,” Linda Collins, a case manager at the center, said of the clients she works with. They come from throughout the county, and some are well educated, live in big houses and wear expensive clothes.

Despite the sheer number of people who have experienced domestic abuse or know someone who has, it’s still largely something people don’t talk about.

“It’s still stigmatized,” Meacham said. “One of our goals is to bring it out of the dark.”

Part of the reason people don’t talk about it is because if most people know a victim, they also know an abuser, said Carol Winans, vice-chairwoman for the center’s board.

“And guess what, the perp is friendlier and more outgoing,” she said. “He’s the one in the neighborhood who helps you when you need help. She’s closed off in the house because he’s forcing her to isolate herself. She’s the one who refuses invitations and stopped calling or returning calls. She isn’t friendly and he is, so everybody likes him and they don’t like her.”

Even on the condition of anonymity, only a few of the women asked to talk about their experiences for this series were willing and one who agreed backed out at the last minute.

Jennifer said it helped her to talk, but there was fear that something she said might allow her abuser to track her again.

It’s painful to dredge up the memories, whether days or years have passed, several victims said.

For Meagan, a 20-something mother of two preschoolers, it has been only weeks since she was last brutalized by her husband. Giving the details of what he did to her was hard. But like Jennifer, she did it because she hoped her story would help someone else and bring attention to the work being done by the Family Justice Center.

“I really don’t know what I would have done without it,” Meagan said. She is well-spoken, well-dressed and works in a skilled profession, but she didn’t know anything about legal routes for protecting herself from her spouse.

“They helped me get an order of protection, take photos and document everything, and get counseling for me and my children.”

Her children were forced to watch as their father tried to kill her.

“He was choking me,” she said. “He had a knife to my throat.” He did enough damage that a month later her voice still hasn’t recovered.

When he tried to force her to leave with him, she refused. He asked if she would rather die inside, with her children present. She agreed to go, then begged for her life. She managed to get away and call 911.

“He was arrested and they kept him there for four hours,” she said.

She tried to stay away from him after that, and is now living with family. But when she went to pick up her children after work one day, he was waiting for her. He moved to attack her and she hit him in the mouth in self defense, she said. He choked her until she blacked out.

When the police arrived, she was conscious and agitated while her husband sat dejectedly on the porch. She tried to explain what happened, but “all they heard was that I punched him,” she said.

This time, Meagan was arrested, though a court later ruled she had acted in self-defense. She spent 36 hours in jail and was charged with the same offense her husband had been when he tried to kill her.

It’s proof, she said, that the legal system needs some work when it comes to dealing with domestic violence.

Meagan put up with abuse for about a year before she decided to leave. At first, she believed she deserved it, she said.

For Jennifer, the decision came quicker. She knew she wanted to get away from her live-in boyfriend after he started trying to control her, sometimes locking her in a room to prevent her from leaving the house, and trying to cut her off from friends and family.

At first she made excuses for his behavior.

She loved him. She didn’t want to be alone. She hoped things would get better.

“We all feel like maybe we can change them or find out why they’re like that and make things better,” Jennifer said.

When he started pushing her, she tried to break up with him, but he threatened her, promising to hurt anyone who gave her shelter or offered any other aid.

She felt trapped, but when he hit her, she knew she couldn’t stay anymore. She didn’t want that for herself or her daughter.

“After that, I started trying to figure a way out,” she said. “I couldn’t just walk out.”

She needed a plan first — money and a place she and her little girl could stay.

She started saving, making arrangements, and one day while he was at work, made her escape.

“I acted like everything was OK and it was a usual day,” she said.

He always called in the middle of the day to make sure she was home, so she waited until after he phoned at around lunch time.

“I knew that would be the last time before he got home,” she said. “I had already packed up everything and put it in storage, and I left.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of Jennifer’s ordeal, but she’s hopeful that in a new place she and her daughter can start over and she can get on with her life without fear.

Jennifer and Meagan said they want people dealing with abuse to know there is help and they can get away. And even if leaving seems frightening they hope other victims seek help sooner than they did.

“People told me to leave,” Meagan said. “I would tell them to mind their business.”

She wishes now she had acted differently.

“I would tell other victims, ‘don’t put up with it; you don’t deserve it,’ ” she said. “You think you can change them. They’ll always say they’re going to change, but they never do. My husband never did.”

She’s lonely sometimes since she left him, she admits. She misses the companionship marriage offered. But she doesn’t regret for a second that she left to protect herself and her children, and put them in a happier situation.

“You never think it will happen to you,” Jennifer said. “Me, I made a lot of excuses. But the first time somebody hits you or threatens your safety and you’re actually scared, find a way to get out as soon as you can. That’s no way to live.”

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