April 27, 2015 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Public Service went to South Carolina’s Post and Courier for the chillingly effective series “Till Death Do Us Part,” about the state’s inadequate response to domestic violence. Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff conducted an in-depth investigation and followed the stories of women killed by men in South Carolina. They concluded, “Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse.”

In 2013 South Carolina had the highest rate of women killed by men, and for the past 15 years it has had a rate among the top 10. The authors highlight two main problems that put South Carolina women at a higher risk of violent death than women elsewhere: A legal system that punishes perpetrators lightly, and insufficient funding for infrastructure that would support women who experience violence. Pardue and colleagues write of the legal penalties:

When asked, most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence. Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.

Many states have harsher penalties. Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, for example, set the maximum jail stay for the same crime at six months. In Georgia and Alabama it is a year.

This extra time behind bars not only serves as a deterrent but also can save lives, according to counselors, prosecutors and academics. Studies have shown that the risk of being killed by an angry lover declines three months after separation and drops sharply after a year’s time.

More than a third of those charged in South Carolina domestic killings over the past decade had at least one prior arrest for criminal domestic violence or assault. More than 70 percent of those people had multiple prior arrests on those charges, with one man alone charged with a dozen domestic assaults. The majority spent just days in jail as a result of those crimes.

Guns were the weapon of choice in nearly seven out of every 10 domestic killings of women over the past decade, but South Carolina lawmakers have blocked efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers. Unlike South Carolina, more than two-thirds of all states bar batterers facing restraining orders from having firearms, and about half of those allow or require police to seize guns when they respond to domestic violence complaints.

The writers blame the state’s culture for this leniency towards men who abuse their partners, noting that men dominate elected offices and rarely challenge “the belief that a man’s home is his castle and what goes on there, stays there.” (Part Three of the series delves into the culture of this Bible Belt state, where many consider divorce a sin.) Perhaps relatedly, dedicating more tax dollars to programs for survivors of intimate partner violence is a tough sell:

Against this backdrop, it has often been difficult to get traction for spending more tax dollars for domestic violence programs and bolstering protections for the abused. The only consistent state money spent on such programs comes from a sliver of proceeds from marriage license fees — a figure that has hovered for years around $800,000 for the entire state. That’s just a tad more than lawmakers earmarked this year for improvements to a fish farm in Colleton County. It equates to roughly $22 for each domestic violence victim.

“Even as we have gone up in the number of murders and attempted murders over the years, that support has never changed,” said Rebecca Williams-Agee, director of prevention and education for the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “It’s all wrapped up in the politics of this state and the stereotypes of domestic violence victims. Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she pull herself up by her own bootstraps?”

Alicia Alvarez put up with abuse for years before she got the courage to leave. The Charleston mother of two said abusers create an atmosphere that robs victims of confidence.

Abusers don’t begin by hitting or killing, Alvarez said. “It begins with little criticisms, second-guessing everything you do. They get in your brain so that when they tell you, ‘You are worthless,’ you believe it.”

Part Two of the series sets a chilling timeline of women’s deaths against the timeline of legislative activity on the issue, while Part Five addresses challenges to under-resourced law-enforcement agencies and courts. Some glimmers of hope are visible in Part Four, in which women who survived violent partners share their stories, and Part Six, which describes solutions that are reducing violent deaths among women in other states. Several short videos feature the family members of women killed by their partners, as well as women who not only had the courage to survive violent and abusive relationships, but to share their stories with the public.

The final installment of the series summarizes the problems that contribute to South Carolina’s appalling rate of violence against women, alongside solutions the state could adopt. The authors write, “Some proposed fixes would cost money, but most could be accomplished with existing resources and some revisions to the state’s laws. What is really needed is leadership from top elected officials, commitment from each of the state’s counties and the participation of an engaged public.”

The journalists, editors, and other staff involved in the series deserve the highest praise for creating such a thorough and moving series on such an important issue. I hope attention from this series’ well-deserved Pulitzer Prize will help spur activity in South Carolina to prevent intimate partner violence and assist survivors.

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