For years, advocates for victims of domestic violence in South Carolina have been left with many unanswered questions. Among them, how often do victims seek relief from the courts? Of those that go to court, how many victims have legal representation? How often are cases dismissed, and why?
South Carolina has consistently ranked among the worst states for domestic violence for the last 20 years. Per the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly half of women and 30 percent of men in South Carolina experience physical violence, sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
Advocates know the challenges victims face when seeking protective orders in their own counties, but each county and magistrate judge operates differently, making it difficult to determine the state’s areas of greatest need.
There has never been an empirical evaluation of the people who are seeking civil legal protections and how their cases are faring throughout South Carolina – until now.
“Over and over in conversation with victim advocates, it became clear there was a need for this information,” says Lisa Martin, associate professor of law and director of the domestic violence clinic for the School of Law. “And the only way to get it is to read case files.”
It sounds simple enough, but accessing such files posed a significant challenge.
South Carolina has four types of protection orders, with four different types of eligibility criteria available from four different courts. The two most commonly used are orders of protection, overseen by South Carolina’s 46 family courts, and restraining orders, overseen by more than 150 magistrate courts distributed throughout the state.
The vast majority of records for case files in these courts are kept exclusively on paper, and the only way to access them is in person.
“We knew going into this study that it would be a huge undertaking, but this information is critical,” Martin says. “Leading this study was also a great opportunity to get to know magistrates and clerks across the state and meet the folks most involved in work that I’m passionate about.”
Between 2021 and 2022, Martin coordinated the outreach effort, ultimately sending research teams to 45 family courts and 93 magistrate courts with case files that fell within the study parameters.
The teams – comprised primarily of law students – collected, scanned and redacted records. It required “hundreds of hours of pulling files,” says Suzanne Swan, a professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Lisa reached out to me sometime in 2019 to discuss her project because she had not really done empirical work before,” Swann says. “My role was to coordinate how we collected the data, figure out how to assess for patterns and then run statistical tests.”
Martin and Swan are roughly halfway through the coding process and have already begun sharing initial findings with the SC Governor’s Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence and at the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network’s annual Victims’ Rights Week conference.
“The whole purpose of the research is to provide information about what's happening systemically, then get it in the hands of people who can use it, try to see what we can learn from it and ask ourselves how we can improve practices to expand access to justice,” Martin says.
Patricia Ravenhorst, general counsel and director of systems advocacy at the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault – one of the many agencies vocally supporting this research – has worked on domestic violence issues for more than 20 years. She’s cautiously optimistic about the difference this data will make for domestic violence victims and advocates.
“I'm hoping people accessing this information outside the field will better understand how important it is to help us to move these resources, develop new ones and create some urgency,” Ravenhorst says. “We can’t wait another decade.”