From Victim to Survivor: The fight against domestic violence in Horry County

Published: Nov. 9, 2022 at 6:01 PM EST|Updated: 7 hours ago
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Around 20 people per minute are victims of intimate partner violence in the United States. That adds up to more than 10 million people each year.

It can happen to anyone: your friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, or the person standing behind you at the coffee shop.

When it comes to those who have experienced domestic violence, there are two types of people: victims, who often never get the chance to share their stories, and survivors who live to talk about it.

Jennifer Hotai’s story has a happy ending, but this is no fairytale.

Hotai moved to Myrtle Beach over a decade ago with her first husband. But when the marriage fell apart, she began browsing craigslist to find a roommate.

“I was just looking for anything, so I could have someplace to live,” she said. “And through that, I met him.”

Over time, the friendship grew into a romantic relationship, eventually going from roommates to husband and wife.

Things started normally. But within the first year, she began noticing red flags.

“He had addiction problems, serious anger problems and some violent tendencies too. I just thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to get over it. He’s going to grow out of it,” Hotai recalls.

Over time, mental abuse turned physical. She said it was so severe and frequent causing daily life became virtually unlivable.

“There’s that saying, ‘Death by a thousand cuts.’ So, I was experiencing a cut every day over a period of a year,” said Hotai.

She said one of the worst punishments was sleep deprivation, Hotai wasn’t allowed to sleep while her abuser was awake. Since he was an addict, which often meant staying up for days on end.

And then she tried to sneak away.

“He would either smother me with a pillow or spray cologne in my face… Blasting music to level 70 and keep it on until I come back in the room and sit next to him,” Hotai explained. “It was just basic non-stop hell.”

Leaving – or even asking for help – didn’t feel like an option. Not just due to his control over her, but also his repeated promises to end her life.

“He would sometimes get creative with, ‘If you call the police, I’m going to slam your head against the concrete and drag your face on the gravel so you’d have to get reconstructive surgery to repair your face,” Hotai recalls.

Hotai describes the moment on April 22, 2022, she said something inside her just broke.

She said after refusing a forced sexual encounter with her abuser, the night erupted in violence fueled by his rage and substance abuse.

“I think subconsciously my mind got into survival mode…my brain getting into the animal instinct [saying], ‘You’ve got to get out. Get out. Get out now or he’s going to kill you,” said Hotai.

Her abuser chased her through the home and into the garage.

She said he opened the garage door, trying to flex his power with an ultimatum: stay and remain under his control. Or be kicked out to the streets.

Knowing she might never have another opportunity — she made a run for it.

“The door opened and my body just acted on its own,” Hotai remembers.

Then, she made the 911 call she said saved her life.

When officers arrested her abuser, she felt a moment of relief. At least until she received an email the next day from Myrtle Beach Police, notifying her he was being released.

Isolated and with nowhere to go, she started looking at what to do and where to go next, but it wouldn’t be easy.

According to a survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, approximately 81 percent of all unmet requests by victims in South Carolina last year were for housing and emergency shelter.

“I feel like process for getting the order of protection was easy,” Hotai explains “The other part, about seeking shelter and safety, that was pretty much non-existent. I called many times. [I] called the phone numbers the police department provided me. They were either all busy signals or they’re saying they weren’t open or didn’t have any room.”

Jennifer Hotai’s story is harrowing, yet all too common.

1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some sort of intimate partner violence.

In South Carolina, the numbers are even higher: up to 42 percent of women and 29 percent of men, and the state ranks sixth in the nation for the number of women murdered by men.

Yet many victims suffer in silence.

“Most people, including my family, didn’t know I was in such a serious situation,” said Hotai.

To learn more about why many victims don’t come forward, WMBF News went to Columbia to meet with the Executive Director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Sara Barber.

Barber said it starts early with more than 10 percent of high school students reporting experiencing intimate partner violence in dating relationships.

“And we all know what happens when girls come forward and talk about their experience of violence,” said Barber. “They are often shamed and often end up having to leave those schools. So, that shaming starts young and it carries on.”

For victims, being shamed and dissected– rather than believed– can be a trauma all its own.

“Victims are very rarely perfect. And why should they be? Why does someone have to reach a level of perfection before we believe them? Because we’re still not going to believe them,” said Barber.

Barber also reminds us, despite the circumstances, at the center of these relationships is love.

So, when you ask a victim why they don’t “just leave.” The answer can be complex.

“When you love someone enough, you think that you can help them get over this behavior. And that’s the trap right there,” Hotai explains.

“The first response is another question, which is “Leave and go where?” Barber adds.

To help victims in Horry and Georgetown counties, the Family Justice Center— led by Executive Director Kim Parsons-- works closely with local housing authorities and income-sensitive apartments.

For over a decade, it’s provided counseling, safety planning, case management, court advocacy, and other services.

“Nobody pays for anything. Everything is free,” said Parsons.

It’s also the only agency with a domestic violence shelter serving Horry County, where about 70 percent of its clients originate.

The problem? It’s located 45 minutes away in Georgetown. But that’s not all.

“We only have three bedrooms at the shelter to house people,” said Parsons. “And we have a maximum capacity of nine, so it’s not much at all.”

Then, if a victim needs a ride to the shelter from law enforcement, it takes double the resources: an Horry County deputy drives them to the county line, then a Georgetown deputy takes them the rest of the way.

As home to the fastest-growing city in the nation, it’s no surprise the number of domestic violence cases in Horry County has grown every year since 2019, according to data provided by the Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

And behind these numbers are people needing help.

People like Jennifer Hotai.

“I wish there was somebody or more resources out there that say,’ Please take a look at this…This could save your life,” said Hotai.

To meet the growing need, a push from state lawmakers led to an announcement last December, awarding the Family Justice Center $1.5 million to build a new domestic violence shelter in Horry County.

But 10 months in, progress is on hold.

Parsons said the stall is mostly due to waiting on engineers and an architect to create renderings for the new shelter.

When those are complete, they can apply for permits and – once approved– get the ball rolling.

Thanks to a generous Grand Strand donor, they already have the land, located in the Conway area.

And with the help of Horry County Chief Deputy Tom Fox, WMBF News got an exclusive look at the property—as well as a preview of what Parsons said is in store for the future.

“We’re very excited that we’re going to have a shelter in Horry County that’s going to be at least double the size of our shelter now. So, we’re looking at 18 to 20 beds All of our staff will be in a building in the front,” said Parsons. “And one thing that I’m very excited about [is] we’re going to have a pet area for cats and for dogs, [Because] that’s a big reason why sometimes people won’t leave. They don’t want to leave their pet.”

Parsons said the family justice center is hoping to have the new shelter up and running by December 2023.

In the meantime, she said the biggest concern going forward is securing the funding it needs to stay open long-term.

However, there are ways the community can help.

Parsons said the Family Justice Center of Horry and Georgetown County is always looking for volunteers. Or to support their biggest fundraiser of the year, people can attend “The Taste of Georgetown” on Saturday, Nov. 12.