‘Til Death Do Us Part: Inside the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Domestic Violence Exposé

DVShutterStockThis week, The Post and Courier, a family-owned and operated newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Public Service gold medal for their in-depth investigation into the devastation wrought by domestic violence in their state. In seven heart-wrenching installments, “‘Til Death Do Us Part” explores the roles culture, patriarchy, law enforcement and legislation play in enabling domestic violence, as well offering commonsense strategies to combat it both statewide and nationally. The Ms. Blog spoke to Jennifer Berry Hawes, one of four journalists tasked with exposing the brutal reality of domestic violence in South Carolina, about shedding light on the suffering of so many at home.

Why this story now?

It started [in 2013] when the Violence Policy Center released its annual rankings for women who are killed by their domestic partners. It’s a ranking that comes out every year and South Carolina is always near the top so, for us, quite honestly, it wasn’t incredibly shocking that South Carolina was first. It’s one of those things where we’re somewhat used to covering, so originally, we kind of approached it as the usual daily story and then my colleagues got together and discussed taking a deeper look. It wasn’t just that we were ranked number one, but that our rate was twice that of the national average. There was obviously something going on here and we decided to take a deeper look at what that was.

How did you approach gathering the data and interview subjects?

[First], we divided up some of the work just by topic. Then, as a group, we decided to take a look at a list [compiled by] The Silent Witness National Initiative that details all of the people who have been killed by their domestic partners [each] year. We went through those lists of all the people who were killed and we tried to trace back details about the perpetrators’ offenses. We went back and looked at [their] other criminal domestic violence (CDV) convictions, other assault-type convictions… if they were repeat offenders. That proved to be really difficult and that’s when we really started to think this is one of the problems. In South Carolina, your first CDV offense is a maximum in jail of 30 days. There were abusers who had multiple first offenses so, there again is another obvious flaw in the system. If you get just a matter of weeks for beating your wife and then do it again and again just get a matter of weeks, what is your [deterrent]? Even if you have the moral recognition that what you’re doing is wrong, you’re not suffering any real punishment. That’s when we realized more than three hundred women had died [at the hands of abusive partners] in the past decade. [About] 1 every 12 days. So, we put a database together and then moved forward gathering more information about the victims themselves, pulled out some of the cases we wanted to really dive into and then we met with surviving victims who could share their stories. One thing that we found that I didn’t realize was that women are actually the most at risk of being killed [by abusive partners] when they do try to leave [and] that’s one reason why a lot of them stay.

Were you surprised by the prevalence and severity of domestic violence?

I have to say when I went in, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of it, [but I] was completely proven wrong. I had people come out of the woodwork. A neighbor of mine, the wife of one of my sons’ coaches [whose] mother had been a victim, there was a killing in my own neighborhood. You start to realize that it’s everywhere and how hush-hush it’s kept. I thought at the start of this that we may wind up focusing on a few key victims who have particularly disturbing stories to drive this, but I think what we found was there were so many. These were women who [felt] trapped in their relationships financially, but others were the breadwinners in their family. They were educated, they had the [financial] ability to leave and support themselves, but there’s so much more entwined in why they stayed. Whether it was because they believed nobody else would care about them ever or they thought, “if only my husband stops drinking, if only he stops doing drugs, if only he could control his temper, if only I’m a better wife, if only I don’t screw up dinner.” It was just so much more complicated than I expected.

What is the biggest misconception about domestic violence?

I think the thing people misunderstand the most is that this is something that goes on all around them. I think that it’s easy to picture it as something that happens to someone else or in a different neighborhood or to other kinds of women, but that’s just not the case. It’s everywhere. The other thing was when we started looking into the religion piece and at the time I was the newspaper’s [faith and values] reporter, I ran across a study that showed that a majority of pastors had never preached about it in their churches and yet religion and commitment to a person’s vows is really one of the driving forces of why women stayed in [abusive] relationships and tried to improve them. I thought it was really interesting that so few pastors spoke about it. [T]hen there was, within that same study, a statistic as to how many actually thought it was a problem in their church. It was a very small number. Again, it’s that idea that that’s something that happens elsewhere or that happens to someone else or that happens in a different demographic than I live in.

Was that the biggest shift in perspective for you?

Definitely. And I wouldn’t just limit it even to religion because to me, it’s just part of the whole cultural fabric. South Carolina is a very conservative, patriarchal state. [For example], there’s still only one woman in our state senate. So you start to really realize how ingrained it is and that is just a part of the culture; that the man is the head of the household and what goes on in his house is his own business. There’s a lot of pride [in South Carolina] in taking care of your own family and defending your own family and being unto yourself and I think that includes the religion piece. Because if you view your vows as sacred and divorce is a sin, then that makes it even harder to get out of a relationship that is abusive.

Why do you think there’s a lack of urgency in addressing the issue of domestic violence?

I think it’s because we don’t see domestic violence as a crime—we see it as a problem in the couple’s relationship. When we interviewed people, we heard over and over again that this was a problem that rested with the couple: “Why doesn’t she leave?” But we never heard, “Why wasn’t he arrested? Why wasn’t he put in jail?” And it was as if it happened out in the street between a couple, it would somehow be different than if I just attacked you in the street. I think that’s a real shift to see that as a crime, not a marital problem.

You mentioned a lack of representation of women in public office. Is that part of it?

I definitely think that’s the case. It’s just not as front and center. We have a bill that’s going around right now to stiffen some of the penalties [for domestic violence] and when that bill was before our senators, the only female senator stood up and gave this very impassioned speech about her own sister who was a domestic-violence survivor. I didn’t hear any of the men in the senate stand up and talk about their personal dealings with domestic violence and [given the statistics] I somehow can’t believe that none of them have had that [experience]. I think that says something. I think for men it’s a little bit easier to just put it off. I think it’s easy for men to just kind of dismiss it. [F]or years and years and years our legislature just didn’t do anything about it and it’s not as if it’s not a problem. Now it’s out there and people are talking about it and it keeps the pressure on them. It keeps it in the news.

What are some steps that can be taken to address domestic violence in South Carolina and nationwide?

I think to increase the penalties for these offenses is critical. I interviewed one woman whose husband had been charged with CDVs several times and every time, he had been charged with a first offense. By the time he went to jail for a couple of weeks and then would get out, she would be fearful for her life. When I met her, she was in the midst of that exact scenario. He had been arrested and she was sitting at home with nowhere to go. She was a sitting duck. So, I think that just increasing the penalties would help tremendously. I think the other thing is having more safe shelters for them to go to. In South Carolina [for instance], we have an animal shelter in every county, but not a domestic abuse shelter. There was something like 380 women had been turned away from the shelters because they were full. And the third thing is a shift in the conversation, because the thing we would hear a lot was, “Well, why wouldn’t she just leave?” The onus should not be on the victim to escape an abusive situation, the onus should be on society to protect that victim and ensure the perpetrator is arrested and punished.

What do you hope to add to the national conversation about domestic violence with “‘Til Death Do Us Part”?

I hope it keeps the conversation going so that we can get legislation passed that makes a real difference in these victims’ lives and that victims out there who feel like they’re alone or they’re the only ones going through this, that there’s nobody out there to help them, that they realize that that’s not the case and in fact, there are more people stepping up to the plate. That would be my greatest wish for this. It’s a devastating thing to cover and I think if we can walk away thinking we’d done our job as journalists to shed light on this, then I think we’ll all feel like it was a success.

Photo via Shutterstock


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!