Severity of domestic violence injuries may be getting worse during pandemic

October 21, 2020
Karen Hughes and Abby Steere-Williams hang clothing on the MUSC Horseshoe.
Forensic nurse Karen Hughes, left, and social work coordinator Abby Steere-Williams hang clothes representing people killed by domestic abusers. Photos by Sarah Pack

As social work coordinator Abby Steere-Williams and forensic nurse Karen Hughes hung dresses and men’s shirts on clotheslines at the Medical University of South Carolina, they mourned the murdered domestic violence victims they symbolized – and worried about what’s happening to other victims during the pandemic.

“We believe we’re seeing more severe injuries,” Steere-Williams said. 

Hughes agreed. “Throughout the state, not just the Tri-county area. We’re seeing worse cases.”

Their comments came as MUSC marked what would normally be an annual rally, sponsored by the Intimate Partner Violence Steering Committee, to raise awareness about domestic violence. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the speakers were scrapped and the clothing was left to say what the victims no longer could. 

Steere-Williams and Hughes suspect that thanks to fear driven by COVID-19, people hurt by partners, exes or spouses aren’t coming to the hospital for treatment like they normally would. Instead, they’re waiting until they’re so severely hurt that they don’t have much of a choice. 

A sign notes that October is domestic violence awareness month. 
During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, MUSC is drawing attention to the fact that 42 South Carolinians were killed in domestic abuse situations last year and encouraging anyone who needs help to reach out.

But Hughes said people should not be afraid of catching the coronavirus in the hospital. “Our administration really has COVID-19 under control within the hospital. There should be no fear of coming into our facility. It’s safe to come here for any emergency.”

That’s not the only impact the pandemic appears to be having on domestic violence. Steere-Williams said some abusers have used it to their advantage. “We have had a few cases where the pandemic has been used as an excuse to keep someone inside more. ‘You can’t go to the store.’ ‘You can’t go out because everything is closed.’ I heard that personally.”

She and Hughes won’t know the big picture numbers for 2020 for a few more months. But they do know the numbers for 2019 and some of the heartbreaking stories behind them. 

In 2019, 42 South Carolinians were the victims of domestic violence murders. Thirty-six of them were women; six were men.

The youngest victim was just 18 years old. A dress symbolizing her life blew in the breeze at MUSC. A note attached to it said she was pregnant, and her boyfriend was killed as well, allegedly by her ex.

A red-checked shirt symbolized 46-year-old Robert McWaters of Orangeburg. His girlfriend said she shot him by accident during an argument.

Clothing hanging on the MUSC campus to represent people killed through domestic violence 
One of several clotheslines strung across the grassy area known as the Horseshoe at MUSC. Each article of clothing has a note attached to it briefly describing the circumstances in which a person died.

A striped dress represented the death of 66-year-old Josephine Barton of Kershaw County. Her estranged husband shot her, then himself.

Steere-Williams wants people to know that there’s help available for people suffering from domestic violence. She specializes in serving children and adults who have been abused, leading the only hospital-based abuse and neglect social work crisis response team in the state. The program, called the MUSC Advocacy Program, MAP, responds to MUSC Health patients 24/7.

She and Hughes also mentioned My Sister’s House, which offers shelter, answers crisis calls and helps with legal cases; Liza’s Lifeline; and Project Unity. There’s also a national hotline for domestic violence, and people can find victim advocates through their local police stations.

“Even though you may not be ready to leave, and the most dangerous time for a victim is the six months after they leave, we can help set up safety planning and set up resources in preparation for you to leave,” Hughes said. “If you’re not planning to leave, we can help you think through ways to help keep you safer within the situation.”

Don’t let the pandemic keep you from seeking help if needed, she said. “We’re hoping our numbers aren’t going up, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

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