Advocates concerned about rise in domestic violence in SC during pandemic

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 7:56 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - At least six people have died and thousands have been hurt behind closed doors throughout the Lowcountry because of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If COVID has made it difficult for people in nonviolent relationships to have a happy relationship and a joyful marriage and things like that, imagine how much harder it is if you’re already going into the pandemic with this sort of compromised, difficult relationship,” University of South Carolina Beaufort Associate Professor Deborah Cohan said.

The North Charleston Police Department reported nearly 1,000 domestic violence incidents in 2020, an increase of more than 40 cases from 2019. Six of them were reported as homicides.

During the pandemic, My Sister’s House, an organization based in North Charleston that provides counseling and housing to families experiencing violence, saw an increase in calls following the lockdowns.

Chief Executive Officer Tosha Connors said the numbers may “skyrocket” in the years to come.

“Once we started getting those calls, we noticed that the intensity of the violence had really escalated with a lot of our clients,” Connors said. “So, maybe victims who had only been abused verbally for the past several years, there was a new component now that was added.”

This comes as no surprise to Cohan.

“It’s as if COVID is exacerbating the things that are already hard about domestic violence,” Cohan said. “With domestic violence, the overarching strategy and tactic abusers use is to isolate a victim. Here, we have this compounded problem of isolation.”

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office reported an increase in domestic violence cases that was similar to that of the North Charleston Police Department. The sheriff’s office reported more than 240 cases in 2020, compared to the 208 cases in 2019.

Unlike other agencies, the Charleston Police Department reported a decrease in domestic violence cases last year. The department reported almost 400 cases in 2020, 30 fewer than in 2019.

The Mount Pleasant Police Department could not provide domestic violence data. Inspector Don Calabrese said that they have no way of tracking those cases and would need to go back through each individual report to calculate the town’s numbers.

“Domestic violence situations inherently are a little more involved and dangerous than others, because you’re working with people who have an intimate relationship in a house, marital issues, children in common, so now the officers are going into the situation where it’s already volatile and a little bit more depth than anything else,” Calabrese said.

The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division puts together crime statistics every year. An agency spokesperson said that they are still working on 2020′s data, but the division reported an increase in domestic violence incidents and murders from 2018 to 2019.

However, some advocates say that the accurate number of local domestic violence cases could actually be far higher than the number reported to law enforcement agencies.

“I think we may see declines in reporting, but I think we should be very careful about what that means for victims because domestic violence may have well increased at this time,” Sara Barber, the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said.

“It’s so hard to report anyway that [COVID] just exacerbates it,” Cohan said. “It makes it that much harder to reach out for help if the person who’s abusing you is in the next room, and you can’t really make a private phone call or it’s hard to go out or to really seek help in any way.”

There are a number of resources available in the Lowcountry that advocates, experts, and law enforcement officials recommend for domestic violence victims.

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