Going To Court For Domestic Violence

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted normal court operations and services being offered to domestic violence survivors, but assistance is still available. The South Carolina Supreme Court has issued a number of court orders addressing how hearings should be handled. You can review them at https://www.sccourts.org/coronavirus/covid-19/. Emergency hearings are still being held in person and include such hearings as orders of protection, custody and visitation cases involving emergency issues, such as imminent threats of bodily harm or significant property loss. Non-emergency hearings are primarily being held via WebEx, which is an online platform. Parties may participate in the WebEx hearings using audio, if they do not have internet access. It is important to prepare for the WebEx hearings the same as if the hearing were held in person. Parties need to be appropriately dressed and in a quiet, distraction free space during all WebEx court proceedings.

The courts in South Carolina are divided by county into different circuits. Each circuit may have individual orders that apply for cases heard within it, so it is important to check to find out if there are any particular orders that apply in your area. Local Family Court orders can be found at https://www.sccourts.org/coronavirus/localorders/. The Administrative Judge for each circuit may also issue rules that are specific for how cases and motions are filed and heard and those particular rules can be obtained from the Clerk of Court within the individual county, or from the Administrative Judge’s assistant.

Order of protection hearings are still being scheduled and heard. South Carolina Legal Services has an online program to assist with completing applications for orders of protection at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/resource/self-help-order-of-protection-forms. Local offices are also providing legal representation in order of protection cases. It is recommended to have legal representation at these hearings, if possible. The orders of protection can provide relief for up to one year including restraining orders, custody, child custody, child support, possession of the marital home, protection of pets and other requested relief.

Family Court in South Carolina is operating, although it is not business as usual. If you would like to apply for our free legal services, you may do so by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

Preventing Child Abuse

April has been designated as the National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States since 1983.  However, the Coronavirus has raised new concerns about child abuse.  Schools have been closed since mid-March. Many parents have been laid off or are working from home. 

Many states, including South Carolina, have reported drastic decreases in child abuse reports since mid-March.  This isn’t because child abuse has declined.  Teachers, day-care workers, and health care providers are mandatory reporters of abuse.  Because schools are closed, teachers and others who normally see and report abuse can no longer do so. Also, many doctors are doing visits through video conferencing, reducing their ability to interact with children and discover abuse or neglect.   Clergy are also mandatory reporters and children are not going to church right now. 

The lack of reporting is concerning because it is likely that child abuse may have increased during this time.  Parents are stressed having to be locked down in a house with their children without a break, and parents are also teaching their kids while facing other stressors like job loss and financial instability.  The added stress for parents is more likely to lead to reactions toward children that may be abusive. 

During this current crisis, it is now very important to report suspected child abuse or neglect.  If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, you should contact local law enforcement and request a welfare check on the child. Law enforcement officers are mandated reporters who can investigate your suspicions and contact the S.C. Department of Social Services if warranted. All reports of suspected abuse or neglect must be made in good faith. You may also report anonymously to the S.C. Department of Social Services by visiting https://benefitsportal.dss.sc.gov/#/ran/home.  Finally, reports can also be made by calling the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

A few weeks ago, a man was charged with a double homicide in Sumter, South Carolina.  The man was accused of killing a woman he was involved in a romantic relationship with.  He was also accused of killing her 5-year old daughter.  He may have killed another woman in a different state about one month prior to the double homicide in Sumter.  In a different case, a woman in Richland County was charged with murder.  She had allegedly stabbed her boyfriend. Police had responded to 52 calls for service from the couple’s residence in 2019.  In court, the accused claimed that she had been the victim of domestic violence at her boyfriend’s hands.  His family claimed that the accused woman was the violent one and had previously cut off the deceased man’s ear.

In thinking about these horrific tragedies, I ponder if these people would be alive today if something had been done differently?  Did law enforcement do everything they could have done to protect them?  Should the law enforcement have arrested someone during those 52 times that they were called to that home?  If the abuser had been arrested and convicted, would these victims still be alive today? If our laws were stricter, would that 5-year-old little girl have started kindergarten this year? Of course, no one will ever know the answer to these questions. 

Currently, police officers have discretion whether to arrest or not arrest if they have probable cause to believe that a person is committing or has freshly committed an act of domestic violence.  Would a change in the law requiring officers to arrest when there is probable cause help us lower our domestic violence related homicides?  Or, would it just lead to less victims calling the police?  Again, I don’t know the answer. 

One thing I do know is that there are free resources available to victims of domestic violence who are ready to get out of the abusive relationship.  Lighthouse for Life provides “freedom bags” full of essentials when a victim leaves an abusive relationship.  There are domestic violence shelters like Sister Care and the YWCA that offer emergency housing and counseling.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) offers free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence.  SCLS can help victims get an Order of Protection, custody of their children, or even a divorce from the abuser.  These are just a few of the many resources available.  You can apply for our help by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at www.sclegal.org. Our eligibility for free legal help depends on your income and your legal problem.

In 2018, 41 people lost their lives in South Carolina as a result of domestic violence. That is 41 too many.  October is domestic violence awareness month.  If you or someone you know needs assistance in getting out of an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

October is National Bullying Prevention Month

Bullying is any act intended or that should be reasonably intended to hurt or harm another person that is usually repeated or occurs more than once. Everyone (students, employees, and volunteers) who witnesses bullying or harassment in public schools or even outside of schools when it causes a major disruption in school has a duty to report it to the principal or other appropriate persons.  Unfortunately, society seems to reserve the term bullying for behavior associated with youth.  However, bullying can be found in relationships of all ages and in all social groups.  Adults can be victims of bullying and harassment in many settings: online, at home, at school and at work.  We can identify some forms of bullying as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.  

People react differently in an undesirable situation when they perceive that nothing can be changed.  However, there will be a reaction. For victims of bullying, we do not know if the reaction will be internal, external, or a combination of both.  According to a 2017 report by the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, in South Carolina, suicide was the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for children ages 15 to 17.  The Committee on Children also reported that the number of high school students that attempted suicide in South Carolina was significantly higher than the national percentage.  Bullying is not the cause of all suicides, but it can cause or increase mental health disorders.  Also, it is common for bullying or harassment to be mentioned as a trigger for extreme responses such as behavioral issues in school or even school shootings.

Perhaps, if we want to prevent bullying, we should remember, bullying is not something that only happens to children in public schools.  It is a form of abuse similar to domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment, racial discrimination and others.  We observe bullying in many forms and cultures, and we become desensitized to it.  It is difficult to prevent or stop, but we should not stop trying. If you need free legal assistance to combat aggression or bullying in any form, apply at South Carolina Legal Services by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at www.sclegal.org. Our eligibility for free legal help depends on your income and your legal problem.