Vocal witness

“It started with him grabbing my arm and pushing me, shouting into my face, ‘You’re so stupid and ugly.’ It didn’t stop there. He raped me and then kicked me in the stomach while I was pregnant. I miscarried. He told me he could kill me and played with his gun to make sure I would always remember he could. I thought that however badly he hurt me, he would not physically hurt our children. He broke our son’s ribs because he couldn’t stand his crying.”

Stories like this one are hard to stomach, but Sara Barber hears them every day. A 13-year veteran in the fight to stop domestic violence, Barber was named executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in June.

But as hard as the job might be, it’s something she feels she was meant to do.

“When I was 18, I was planning to study law, which is an undergraduate degree in England,” says Barber, a U.K. native who first came to Carolina as an exchange student. “That’s really where my heart’s always been but I got sidetracked.”

Barber was working at a local bookstore when a friend’s mother told her about a full-time position at Cayce’s Domestic Abuse Center. A new mother, she was looking for a job with more regular hours, but the idea of working one-on-one with abusers was not immediately appealing.

“Initially, I said ‘I don’t want do that!’ But she called me back and said, ‘You really need to go talk to this guy,’ ” says Barber. “The director and I spent two and a half hours just talking about the issue, and I realized that I have an affinity for this kind of work.”

Barber took the job and eventually returned to graduate school — this time in criminal justice. She earned her master’s in 2009 and became the director at the Domestic Abuse Center, where she remained until this summer.

The statewide coalition Barber now heads serves as an umbrella for 23 organizations statewide that provide direct services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also provides technical assistance training to service providers, works with legislators to toughen laws and otherwise works to raise awareness of crimes that people often don’t want to acknowledge.

“I think people try to distance themselves from it as a way of protecting themselves, as a way to tell themselves, ‘This can’t happen to me,’ ‘This doesn’t happen to anyone I know,’ ” Barber explains. “There’s some emotional safety if we tell ourselves that someone has done something to put themselves in this sort of position.”

But the challenge remains enormous, particularly in S.C., where 36,000 incidents of domestic violence are reported to law enforcement every year — “And that’s just what’s reported,” says Barber. 

S.C. has also ranked among the 10 worst states in the nation for women murdered by men each of the last 17 years, according to the national Violence Policy Center. At the 2014 state Attorney General’s office Silent Witness Ceremony this October, 46 silhouettes were displayed to honor the victims murdered in the past year, including 36 victims who were murdered with firearms.

“People don’t realize the scope of the problem. They think of domestic violence offenders and domestic violence victims as looking a certain way or living in a certain part of town,” Barber says. “They don’t realize that the victim could be their sister, their mother, their manager, their pastor — or that the offender could be any of those people, too. It’s not something that people go around with tattooed on their forehead: ‘I’m a batterer,’ ‘I’m a victim.’”

The victim is also the community as a whole, according to Barber, who became a caseworker before pursuing her master’s at Carolina in part because she wanted to make the world a safer place for the next generation.

“With this type of work, if you help one family, then you’re helping future generations, the people that those people come into contact with and making the community a better and safer place,” she says. “For me, it’s also about having daughters and wanting them to be safe, wanting their world to be safer so we’re not having the same conversation in 20 years.” 

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