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Shedding light on a hidden crime: domestic violence
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Domestic violence — a crime committed behind closed doors between intimate partners — is one of society’s most damaging afflictions.

Domestic violence cuts across racial, ethnic, social and economic boundaries. Victims of intimate partner violence – those who live together or others who are simply dating — range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Some victims are in traditional marriages with children and other victims are in same-sex partnerships. Both men and women are victims, though women make up the majority.


Startling statistics


According to the Family Violence

Prevention Fund, at least three women are murdered each day by their husbands or boyfriends. And nearly one in four American women has reported experiencing intimate partner abuse at some point in her life.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports women age 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of non-fatal intimate partner violence. The department also reports one in three teenage girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

In addition, teen victims of physical dating violence are more likely than their non-abused peers to smoke, use drugs, engage in unhealthy diet behaviors such as taking diet pills or laxatives and vomiting to lose weight, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and attempt or consider suicide.

Georgia is ranked 15th in the U.S. for intimate partner homicides, according to the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. According to an annual Domestic Violence Fatality Review Report released in March, Georgia had more than 72,000 incidents of domestic violence in 2009.

In Liberty County, six intimate partner homicides occurred in 2006 and four such deaths occurred in 2003.

"Domestic violence homicides are a problem," Tri County Protective Agency assistant director Cheryl Hughes said. "That’s what our work is about; to prevent it before it gets to that point."


Difficult cycle to break


The Tri County Protective Agency is a misnomer; the agency actually assists victims of domestic violence across five counties, including Liberty, Long, Bryan, Tattnall and Evans. The shelter, which opened in February 1988, can house up to 12 clients and their children. But, they will not turn away anyone seeking help, Hughes said.

She said domestic violence is a crime that tends to escalate. What often begins as emotional and mental abuse, she said, can become physical abuse. The worst cases end in murder.

"The first six months after a woman leaves an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for her," Hughes said.

She said this is the reason many of their clients often choose to leave the state, to live near or with relatives.

"A strong support system is so important (for victims)."

Hughes said the agency’s clients usually come in after their partners have hit them. What agency counselors find, she said, is the abuser has had control over their victim for a long time.

"The power, the anger has been there," Hughes said. "DV victims may not get hit every day; it could be six months between (violent) episodes."

She added abusers may behave in an apologetic manner following a violent episode, presenting the victim flowers or gifts afterward.

"It’s like a honeymoon period," Hughes said. "The victim sees her partner as the person she first fell in love with."

Sometimes, though, victims may sense a violent outburst is coming and may try to "do something to make it happen sooner; so it (the violence) won’t be as bad," the social worker said.

She added shelter workers typically see an upswing in domestic violence in Liberty and surrounding counties several weeks after troops return from deployment.

"There’s a honeymoon period for the first several weeks and then it will begin," Hughes said.

Before the end of the last redeployment, the shelter received calls from military spouses requesting temporary protective orders even before their abusers returned home.


Law enforcement well aware of problem


Hughes said local law enforcement has stepped up to the plate in dealing with domestic violence.

She said she and her staff "sorely miss" former Liberty County Sheriff Don Martin, who died in late May. Martin was a staunch supporter of the shelter and offered his help whenever they requested it, Hughes said.

Both the LCSO and Hinesville Police Department make referrals to shelter and counseling services, she said. Deputies and officers also receive training in domestic violence, she added. The Evans County Sheriff’s Office has recently made strides in "getting the word out" about shelter services, Hughes said.

LCSO Chief Deputy Keith Moran said deputies receive training when they attend the academy and "they get refresher courses through the department."

Moran added he has not seen a significant increase in domestic violence cases in the past few years. "It’s a constant thing we see," he said.

HPD Assistant Police Chief Julian Hodges said domestic violence is "prevalent in the community." He said the number of incidents his officers handle tends to ebb and flow.

Officers receive their initial training when they attend the police academy, Hodges said.

"The state mandates an additional 20 hours of training each year. We also have departmental training," Hodges said. He added officers can attend classes on domestic violence issues anytime they wish.

"All of our officers have domestic violence training in one form or another and a lot of them have more extensive training," Hodges said.

HPD Capt. Johnetta Reid said officers learn how to deal with domestic violence victims and try to encourage victims to seek counseling, if possible. Officers also learn to recognize victims and aggressors.

"You have a lot of people who do not call to get help," Reid said.

She said she hopes these victims will confide in someone they can trust — a minister or counselor — if they feel they cannot come to the police.


Assisting the victims


Hughes said a growing number of domestic violence victims they see are single women in their teens and early twenties.

"There is a great deal of them that aren’t married," she said. "Stalking is a big issue."

Hughes said victims have a hard time leaving their abusers for various reasons.

"A lot of victims have not been able to work or were not permitted to work," she said. "That’s a serious barrier."

Victims may be afraid to leave their abusers because they often can’t financially support themselves or their children, Hughes explained.

Although victims of domestic violence come from "all walks of life," they all share one common characteristic, family violence assessor Melanie Griffin said — low self-esteem.

Victims may desire to leave an abusive situation but may feel it is somehow their fault, Griffin explained.

"We have had women here (at the shelter) who are highly educated and are afraid they can’t survive on their own," Hughes said.

Hughes and Griffin said victims of domestic violence have been demoralized over time, are often isolated and disconnected from family and friends. They are also embarrassed to ask for help, they said.

"It’s tough for a victim to reveal what is her darkest secret," Hughes said.

Hughes and Griffin said they do all they can to help victims of domestic violence work toward independence.

"Ultimately, everything depends on the victim," Hughes said.

"The choice is theirs – to stay or leave," Griffin said.

Still, they say their jobs are rewarding.

"They’re not all success stories," Hughes said. "But the ones who make it (make the job) worth it."

If you need help, call the Tri County Protective Agency crisis line at 368-9200.

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