Tuesday evening, the Charleston Post and Courier released a massive seven-part series on South Carolina’s failure to take domestic violence seriously—a failure that has resulted in the state leading the nation in the murder rate of women at the hands of men (currently the best measure we have for domestic homicide). The series, titled “Till Death Do Us Part,” is the result of interviewing “more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges” to create a multimedia story chronicling the failures of legislators, law enforcement, social services, and even churches to do enough to fight the problem of domestic violence. Journalists Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff unflinchingly place much of the blame on South Carolina culture: heavily conservative values about marriage and gender roles, as well as an enthusiasm for guns that makes it nearly impossible to get them out of the hands of men who want to kill women.
South Carolina, they write, is a state “where men have long dominated the halls of power, setting an agenda that clings to tradition and conservative Christian tenets about the subservient role of women,” leading to “a tolerance of domestic violence.” Even though research shows that the murder rate from domestic violence “declines three months” after a couple has been kept apart and “drops sharply after a year’s time,” power players in the state frequently prioritize keeping couples together over victims’ safety.
For instance, the Post and Courier interviewed state House Minority Leader J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat, about his refusal to support any bills increasing the maximum penalty for a first-time domestic violence offense, which is currently 30 days in jail. (The maximum penalty for beating a dog, the Post and Courier notes, is five years.) Rutherford “said such laws fail to take into account that many cases involve families that might be preserved,” arguing that women frequently drop the charges because they “realize the destructive consequences for the whole family.” Never mind that the belief that women are supposed to move heaven and earth to make their marriages work causes victims to stick by men they know are dangerous.
The Post and Courier found plenty of Republicans who were just as quick to look to platitudes about family and faith in order to avoid the realities of what domestic violence victims need to survive. State Sen. Tom Corbin, when justifying his resistance to any laws that would make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, said, “There needs to be a lot more love for Jesus in the world, and I think that would curb a lot of violence.”
As the Post and Courier writers point out, religion “can fuel the problem, if inadvertently,” by teaching that women are meant to be submissive, suffering is holy, and divorce is sinful. Not just in South Carolina: Of the 10 states with the highest rate of men killing women, nearly all are states, such as Oklahoma and West Virginia, that have the same kind of highly religious, highly conservative culture.
Of course, changing the culture of a state is a deeply complex issue, but, as the Post and Courier staff notes, there are a number of policy fixes that could go a long way toward protecting victims, starting with upping the first-time penalty for domestic battery from a maximum of 30 days to a year, to give victims time to escape the financial and emotional hold their abusers have over them.
They also recommend passing a law banning abusers from owning guns and putting teeth into it by giving the police authority to confiscate guns of those “convicted of criminal domestic violence or facing an active restraining order.” Research shows that when abusers have access to guns, the chance of domestic homicide goes up, and laws that ban abusers from buying guns are associated with dropping rates of intimate homicide. They also push for a more comprehensive approach to the problem, with social services and law enforcement working together, and an understanding that domestic violence is a chronic problem, much as we’ve seen in states like Massachusetts or Maryland.
Hopefully this important piece will compel the South Carolina legislature to actually do something, after letting all but one bill addressing domestic violence die in committee in 2014. “The lone exception” that actually got a chance to be voted on and was passed into law? “[C]ourt-ordered protection for the pets of the victims of domestic violence.” Protecting animals is an important part of government, of course. But it’s time to start keeping the women of South Carolina safe, not just the dogs and cats.