- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina is consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the country for domestic violence, and research by the governor’s domestic violence task force has determined the problem might be bigger than originally thought.

The task force found no uniform reporting system for domestic violence. It also found no consistent policies on how police agencies handles domestic violence calls, that no one can definitely say how many domestic violence cases are successfully prosecuted in the state because of limitations to court records, about half of schools don’t have any domestic violence education and while there are services available for domestic violence victims, the providers sometimes don’t coordinate.

The information stunned Gov. Nikki Haley, who brought together the 136 people across a broad range of law enforcement and social services. She said it emphasized why stopping domestic violence is one of her top priorities in her second term and it will take a change in culture as much as changes in laws.

“It’s a silent crime that continues to go on because people aren’t comfortable talking about it,” Haley said.

The problems in data collection start with the officer responding to a domestic violence call. The incident reports they fill out can introduce faulty data when crimes aren’t reported as domestic violence or sections of the report about the relationship between the suspect and victim are not filled out, said Corrections Department researcher Charles Bradberry, who reviewed the system.

A prime example of the problem is Richland County, which in 2012 had the state’s highest crime rate, but its domestic violence rate was 41st out of 46 counties. That doesn’t make sense, Bradberry said.

Other counties showed wide fluctuations. Some counties with similar demographics were on opposite ends of the rankings. And a place like Greenwood County, where the sheriff’s office and prosecutors have made fighting domestic violence a priority, is at the top of the rankings because they worked hard to make sure they get the full scope of the problem, Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling said.

“We could be worse than is being reported. Until you have uniformity, it is hard to measure something,” said Stirling, who was in charge of the criminal justice part of the task force.

The task force found that less than half of police departments use checklists for officers on domestic violence calls, which can mean they forget to take important steps like ask for cellphones or take pictures of injuries, according to surveys sent to all police agencies in the state. About half of them answered the questions, including the sheriff’s offices in all 46 counties.

Only half of the agencies required officers to speak to children who are at domestic violence calls and only about one in eight had officers check to see if victims might have been strangled, which advocates said is often a gateway to extreme violence.

And when cases do get into court, it’s hard to see what happens next. About 62 percent of all first-offense criminal domestic violence cases end with not guilty verdicts, but it is impossible to know if they are found not guilty, accepted a plea bargain or the charges were dropped because South Carolina’s case management system only lists the final charge, not the defendant’s initial charge, said Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Also, the State Law Enforcement Division database that local incident reports are uploaded into can’t track names or identifications, so there is no way to know if a domestic violence victim or suspect has shown up on other reports.

Now that the task force has an idea of the scope of the problem, they need to move to fixing it, Haley said.

She asked the groups to come back with reports to her with solutions by Aug. 6.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/

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