The Charleston Post and Courier won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering South Carolina’s woeful state of affairs with respect to domestic violence. It found the state was the worst in the nation for fatal husband-on-wife attacks, with more than 300 deaths between 2006 and 2015.
This did not come to a shock to the state’s social workers, who noted that the Palmetto State took a half century to officially ratify a woman’s right to vote after the 19th amendment’s passing, didn’t allow women to serve on juries until 1967 and didn’t outlaw marital rape until 1991.
In the wake of that series, lawmakers rushed to take action. They made it easier to prosecute batterers and bumped up the penalties for domestic violence.
Today, South Carolina is no longer worst in the nation for domestic violence (on last accounting, we’re fifth worst) but it is still a major issue. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says our state still needs to toughen its laws, specifically in these ways:
- Prohibit convicted batterers from owning firearms for three years after release regardless of the relationship to the victim. Currently, abuse of dating partners is not covered.
- Prohibit those against whom protective orders have been issued from owning firearms until the order is lifted.
- Requiring law enforcement to confiscate firearms when called for domestic violence incidents.
- Require background checks for all firearm sales and transfers.
University of South Carolina’s MSW program incorporates training for domestic violence victims into most of its courses, says Damitra Hilton. She should know: a 2017 graduate of the program’s Charleston cohort, taught remotely at the Lowcountry Graduate Center, Hilton worked as a program director for years at My Sister’s House, Charleston’s domestic abuse shelter.
Currently a clinician at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, Hilton says the issue is part of nearly every social worker’s job, almost no matter where they practice – in a school, or a health care setting, with the homeless or the elderly.
Hilton says even after more than a decade at My Sister’s House, she learned in the MSW program techniques for dealing with families caught in a web of violence.
For example, she learned that women who appear bereft of resources when they enter the shelter in fact have many individual strengths that can be leveraged to begin the process of moving forward. Just summoning the courage to leave their abuser and find the shelter demonstrates initiative and strength.
She also learned how to consider the whole client, including their surrounding ecology, when developing a plan to move forward.
“We might ask, what is your support system and the client’s reaction would be that they don’t have one. But when we ask where they find their strength, they might say their family or their faith, and then they would realize that they have friends in church or they’re in the choir or they have a minister. Or their husband wouldn’t allow them to talk to their family, but mom would be there if she was asked,” Hilton explained.
Hilton says security inside domestic relationships is still a major issue in South Carolina, but there has been improvement since the newspaper coverage. It brought awareness and recognition to the issue.
“There was an influx of phone calls and volunteers after the series came out,” she said. People are more on high alert, more apt to say something if they see something, and women are more able to reach out for help.”
And she believes her classmates are well-prepared to deal with the issue, something she wasn’t convinced of before she entered the MSW program.
“My perspective was it was a formality, but I learned so much even though I had all this experience,” she said. “It blew my mind how much I learned there.”