State must focus on reducing domestic violence

South Carolina’s rate of domestic violence is headed in the right direction. But the state still must maintain its focus on significantly reducing this scourge.

The annual report by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., ranked South Carolina fifth in the nation in the rate of women murdered by men in 2014. While that represents a welcome drop from first in the nation, the state’s rate of violence against women still is significantly higher than the national average.

South Carolina has a dismal record of deadly violence against women. In 2013, the state ranked first in the nation for the fourth time.

Even with the drop to fifth place in 2014, that was the 19th consecutive year the state had ranked in the top 10.

On Oct. 4, mourners gathered at the Statehouse to memorialize the 47 lives lost to domestic violence last year. At the ceremony, organizers placed silhouettes on the Statehouse steps representing the victims – 35 red ones for the women 12 blue for the men and one purple silhouette representing unknown victims.

One reaction might be to throw up our hands and declare that domestic violence is an inescapable part or our culture, that it is our destiny. But that would be totally unacceptable.

If such violence is part of our culture – and that undoubtedly is a factor – we need to change the culture. And one way to begin doing that is to change the law.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a substantive domestic violence bill that increased penalties for those convicted of domestic violence and gave judges more options in sentencing. The effort had the support of both Gov. Nikki Haley and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, as well as a variety of victim advocate groups who lobbied hard for the reforms.

In addition to changes in the law, more money was allocated for new prosecutors to handle domestic violence cases. Many of those cases still are prosecuted by law enforcement officers who often have to go up against privately funded attorneys on the defense side.

In 2014, Haley created a task force designed to study the causes of domestic violence and find ways to reduce it. That panel produced dozens of recommendations, including training more 911 operators to deal with domestic violence calls, improving crime scene documentation and increasing the number of shelters for battered women and their children statewide.

Changing the culture of violence against women may be more difficult than changing the law but just as necessary. For one thing, the state needs to find ways to teach young males nonviolent ways to resolve domestic disputes.

We need to teach law enforcement officers the most effective ways to handle cases of domestic abuse in the field and, later, when questioning victims and suspects. We need to encourage friends and neighbors to report domestic abuse when they see evidence of it.

We hope the ranking for 2014 represents a positive trend, not just a statistical anomaly. We hope it is a result of the efforts taken to address this problem.

But while it represents progress, South Carolina has a long way to go. With hard work, maybe the state can end its shameful legacy of violence against women.