Paper Thin: Is S.C.’s system falling short when it comes to penalties, protections in domestic violence situations?

Published: Apr. 5, 2023 at 3:30 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 5, 2023 at 6:37 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) – For the estimated 82,000 South Carolinians who will become victims of domestic violence each year, getting out of the situation is only half the battle.

Last November, WMBF News introduced you to Jennifer Hotai. She walked us through her harrowing story of surviving domestic violence, detailing the abuse she endured and recounting how she ultimately escaped.

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

But as she and countless domestic violence survivors before her have learned, the fight isn’t over once you leave.

It often signals a new fight, within the justice system, that’s only just beginning.

After finally calling 911 on April 22, 2022, Hotai said it felt like a weight off her shoulders.

That is, until she had to face her abuser for the first time since her escape and his arrest, inside a Horry County courtroom.

It would require mental preparation and plenty of courage.

“I could tell he wanted to create a confrontation… [He was] positioning himself in the middle of the hallway so I would have to go and pass by and he would say his peace,” Hotai recalled.

Not only was this a first step toward taking her power back, but 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said it was also the first step toward justice.

It’s a first step in what can sometimes be a challenging process, which begs the question “How difficult is it to get a conviction in a domestic violence case?”

“It’s really not hard at all if the victim shows up,” Richardson said. “If the victim doesn’t show up, it’s impossible.”

He said situations where survivors must face their abusers can make or break a case.

“If the victim hasn’t been built up. If the victim doesn’t feel secure, hasn’t gone to whatever counseling they need to be in a better place than they were on the night of the assault, you’re not going to get anywhere with domestic violence,” Richardson explained.

In his more than 40 years in law enforcement, Horry County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tom Fox said he’s seen first-hand how volatile situations can become when responding to domestic violence calls.

“You’re going into somebody’s castle. You’re going into their home and normally somebody is leaving in handcuffs,” he said. “It causes a lot of stress, not only on the officers but on the family members and it can turn violent quickly.”

He’s also seen how the culture, resources and procedures around domestic violence have evolved in the law enforcement field.

“Years and years ago, you never even wrote an incident report. You just told them, ‘Well, go ahead and leave. Don’t come back tonight,’” Fox recalled. “Now, you must write an incident report and if there are signs of physical abuse, you must arrest.”

Another important improvement has come through mandated training, which starts at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.

Director Jackie Swindler said domestic violence training begins before recruits even arrive.

“We produce four weeks of that pre-recorded [training] here and push out so they can watch it back at their agency before they come here,” Swindler said. “Domestic violence is taught already a day and a half before they come here.”

But the training doesn’t stop there.

“After they come here, they are constantly training in those 8 weeks here. They have about 12 more hours there, four hours of stalking and harassment and they have another four hours of victimology,” Swindler added.

To maintain their certification, officers must complete a minimum of 40 hours of advanced training every three years, plus an annual update on laws, domestic violence and mental illness protocol.

Despite progress made within law enforcement and the justice system, for some, the issue of institutional mistrust remains.

“There are communities whose experience with that system is not good and who may want to seek other ways of dealing with the violence in their lives,” South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Executive Director Sara Barber explained.

That disconnect can have a devastating impact on victims when it comes to reaching out for help.

“I think one of the worst things is that we get clients who come in and say, ‘This happened to me, and I was arrested. So, that’s going to make me think twice if something happens again,” Family Justice Center of Horry and Georgetown Counties Executive Director Kim Parsons explained.

Hotai remembers her mindset in the moments before making the call, when she said it was a matter of life and death.

“I’m just going to run out of this garage and you’re not going to see me call the police but I’m going to do that,” she recalled. “I had my phone in my hand and just called 911 and said ‘Please, take him out.’”

Yet, even if you make that call, the crux of our legal system remains innocent until proven guilty.

“This is a system that is set up for the defendant. I mean, don’t fool yourself by that,” 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. “But we try to make it as fair as possible.”

One milestone for South Carolina came in 2015 when the Domestic Violence Reform Act was signed into law. The legislation helped implement clearer definitions of abuse, a uniform citation system, stricter punishments for offenders, and stipulations helping make domestic violence cases simpler for court systems.

But how well is the system working now? And can more be done within our court system to provide justice for those who have experienced domestic violence?

We’ll take a closer look at those answers in part two of this special report next Wednesday on WMBF News at 6 p.m.