HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – About 20 people per minute are victims of domestic violence in the United States. This represents more than 10 million people each year.
It can happen to anyone: your friend, a neighbor, a colleague, or the person standing behind you at the coffee shop.
When it comes to those who have experienced domestic violence, there are two types of people: the victims, who often never get the chance to share their stories, and the survivors who live to tell them.
Jennifer Hotai’s story has a happy ending, but it’s not a fairy tale.
Hotai moved to Myrtle Beach over a decade ago with her first husband. But when the marriage fell apart, she started browsing Craigslist to find a roommate.
“I was looking for anything, to have a place to live,” she said. “And through that, I met him.”
Over time, the friendship turned into a romantic relationship, eventually growing from roommates to husband and wife.
Things started normally. But within the first year, she started noticing red flags.
“He had addiction issues, severe anger issues and violent tendencies too. I just thought, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine. He’ll be fine,” Hotai recalled.
Over time, the mental abuse became physical. She said it was so severe and frequent that daily life was almost unbearable.
“There’s this saying, ‘Death by a thousand cuts.’ So, I had a cut every day over a period of a year,” Hotai said.
She said one of the worst punishments was sleep deprivation, Hotai was not allowed to sleep while her attacker was awake. Since he was a drug addict, which often meant staying awake for days.
And then she tried to sneak out.
“Either he was smothering me with a pillow or he was spraying cologne on my face… Turning on music at level 70 and continuing it until I came back into the room and sat down at side of him,” Hotai explained. “It was just non-stop basic hell.”
Leaving – or even asking for help – didn’t seem like an option. Not only because of his control over her, but also because of his repeated promises to end her life.
“He would sometimes get creative saying, ‘If you call the police, I’ll bang your head on the concrete and drag your face on the gravel, so you’ll have to have reconstructive surgery to fix your face,'” Hotai recalled. . .
Hotai describes the moment on April 22, 2022, she said something inside her just snapped.
She said that after refusing a forced sexual encounter with her attacker, the night erupted in violence fueled by her rage and drug addiction.
“I think subconsciously my mind went into survival mode…my brain went into animal instinct [saying], ‘You have to get out. Go out. Get out now or he will kill you,” Hotai said.
Her attacker chased her through the house and into the garage.
She said he opened the garage door, trying to wield his power with an ultimatum: stay and stay under her control. Or be thrown out on the street.
Knowing that she might never have another opportunity, she ran away.
“The door opened and my body acted on its own,” Hotai recalled.
Then she called 911 which she says saved her life.
When the police arrested her attacker, she felt a moment of relief. At least until she received an email the next day from the Myrtle Beach police, informing her that he was released.
Isolated and with nowhere to go, she started figuring out what to do and where to go next, but it wouldn’t be easy.
According to a survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, about 81% of all unmet claims by victims in South Carolina last year were for emergency housing and shelter.
“I feel like the process of getting the protective order was easy,” Hotai says. “The other part, about finding shelter and security, was pretty much non-existent. I called several times. [I] called the phone numbers that the police department gave me. Either they were all busy or they said they weren’t open or they didn’t have room.
Jennifer Hotai’s story is heartbreaking, but all too common.
1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some kind of domestic violence.
In South Carolina, the numbers are even higher: up to 42 percent of women and 29 percent of men, and the state ranks sixth in the nation for the number of women murdered by men.
Yet many victims suffer in silence.
“Most people, including my family, didn’t know I was in such a serious situation,” Hotai said.
To learn more about why many victims don’t come forward, WMBF News traveled to Colombia to meet with the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Sara Barber.
Barber said it starts early with more than 10% of high school students reporting having experienced domestic violence in romantic relationships.
“And we all know what happens when girls come forward and talk about their experiences of violence,” Barber said. “They are often shamed and often end up having to leave these schools. So this shame starts young and continues.
For victims, being shamed and dissected — rather than believed — can be a trauma in itself.
“Victims are very rarely perfect. And why should they be? Why does someone have to reach a level of perfection before we believe them? Because we’re still not going to believe them,” Barber said.
Barber also reminds us, despite the circumstances, that at the center of these relationships is love.
So when you ask a victim why they don’t “just leave”. The answer can be complex.
“When you love someone enough, you think you can help them overcome that behavior. And that’s the catch,” says Hotai.
“The first answer is another question, which is ‘Leave and go where?’ Barber adds.
To help victims in Horry and Georgetown counties, the Family Justice Center, led by Executive Director Kim Parsons, works closely with local housing authorities and income-sensitive apartments.
For over a decade, he has provided counselling, safety planning, case management, advocacy and other services.
“Nobody pays anything. It’s all free,” Parsons said.
It is also the only agency with a domestic violence shelter serving Horry County, where approximately 70% of its clients are from.
The problem? It is located 45 minutes to Georgetown. But that’s not all.
“We only have three rooms at the shelter to house people,” Parsons said. “And we have a maximum capacity of nine, so that’s not a lot at all.”
Then, if a victim needs to be taken to safety from law enforcement, the resources are doubled: a deputy from Horry County drives them to the county line, then a deputy from Georgetown the take it to the end.
As home to the fastest growing city in the nation, it’s no surprise that the number of domestic violence cases in Horry County has increased every year since 2019, according to data provided by the Office of the Fifteenth Circuit Prosecutor.
And behind these numbers are people who need help.
People like Jennifer Hotai.
“I wish there was someone or more resources out there that say, ‘Please take a look at this…This could save your life,'” Hotai said.
To address the growing need, a push by state lawmakers led to an announcement last December granting the Family Justice Center $1.5 million to build a new domestic violence shelter in Horry County.
But 10 months later, progress is on hold.
Parsons said the stall is primarily due to the wait for engineers and an architect to create renderings for the new shelter.
When these are complete, they can apply for permits and – once approved – get the ball rolling.
Thanks to a generous Grand Strand donor, they already have the land, located near East Cox Ferry Road in Conway.
And with the help of Horry County Deputy Chief Tom Fox, WMBF News got an exclusive look at the property, as well as a glimpse of what Parsons said is in store for the future.
“We are very pleased to have a shelter in Horry County that will be at least double the size of our shelter now. So we are looking at 18 to 20 beds. All of our staff will be in a building up front,” Parsons said. “And one thing that excites me a lot [is] we will have an animal area for cats and dogs, [Because] that’s a big reason why sometimes people don’t leave. They don’t want to leave their pet.
Parsons said the Family Justice Center hopes to have the new shelter up and running by December 2023.
In the meantime, she said the biggest concern going forward is getting the funding she needs to stay open for the long term.
However, the community can help in different ways.
Parsons said that the Horry and Georgetown County Family Justice Center is always looking for volunteers. Or to support their biggest fundraiser of the year, people can attend “The Taste of Georgetown” Saturday, November 12.
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